Quinn Burke had her elbows on the bar, her eyes scanning the room before her. This wasn’t a lesbian bar, but there were certainly plenty of them who frequented the place. Brockport, New York, was more or less a college town. Not on the same scale as an Ohio State or a Michigan, that was for sure. But there were more than enough students, of legal drinking age, of course, to keep the joint hopping through the school year.
“How many times do I have to tell you they’re too young for you, Burke?” Taylor Fletcher asked as she took a seat at the bar in front of Quinn. Quinn pushed off the bar and grinned as she set a coaster in front of Taylor and got her usual ginger ale.
“I think you need to tell them, not me,” Quinn said with a quick grin and slight lift of her shoulder. “I’ve never once tried to pick any of them up, and you know it.”
“Yes, I do,” Taylor said before taking a sip of her soda. “But I also know you do very little to discourage them too.”
“Seriously?” Quinn asked, unable to hide her surprise. “Are you telling me if a twenty-two-year-old college senior was coming on to you, you’d cast her aside and walk away?”
“You ask that as though you think it doesn’t happen to me.”
Quinn studied Taylor for a moment, not sure whether or not she was pulling her leg. Taylor owned the bar Quinn had been working at for the past fifteen or so years. Taylor was forty-two, the same age as Quinn. She wouldn’t describe Taylor as drop-dead gorgeous as she’d heard more than one patron describe her. But she was definitely attractive, especially in the way she carried herself. Her hair was so dark it was almost black, and her brown eyes were expressive in a way Quinn had never seen before. Taylor Fletcher turned heads whenever she decided to make an appearance in the bar. From men and women alike.
“Oh, I know it happens,” Quinn replied. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
“And have you ever seen me leave with any of them?”
“No,” Quinn said with a shake of her head.
“You might do well to show some restraint too.” Taylor grinned, her tone teasing but nevertheless a challenge to Quinn’s ears. Taylor didn’t have a problem with her employees fraternizing with the customers so long as it was done discreetly, and away from the bar.
“You don’t think I can say no?” Quinn asked as she staggered backward a couple of steps and put a hand over her heart.
“I know you can’t.” Taylor laughed and leaned back on her bar stool. “Prove me wrong. Turn down the next woman who comes on to you.”
“Fine,” Quinn said, while at the same time hoping it wouldn’t be the blonde who’d been eyeing her all evening. What Quinn wouldn’t do with that body pressed against hers. Her gaze automatically went to the young woman in question, and Quinn swallowed hard. She was heading toward the bar. Quinn shot a look of contempt in Taylor’s direction and considered asking for a reprieve, but then decided against it. She could do this.
“Hi,” the woman said shyly.
“What can I get for you?” Quinn asked, both hands gripping the edge of the bar more tightly than was necessary.
“Funny you should ask,” she said with a quick glance over her shoulder in the direction of her friends. Quinn followed her line of sight and saw the other women nodding and waving at their nervous companion. Quinn almost felt sorry for her. “I was wondering what time you get off.”
Holy crap, what a loaded question. Quinn could think of any number of witty and flirty responses to that question, but she could feel Taylor’s eyes boring into her. She shook her head at the young woman, hoping she didn’t look as disappointed as she felt at what she was about to do.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have plans after work tonight.”
“Oh,” said the blonde, looking seriously defeated. Quinn’s fingers twitched with the desire to touch her. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“Wait,” Quinn said with a quick glance at Taylor, who was attempting to cover a smile by putting her glass to her lips and pretending to take a drink. “What’s your name?”
“Maybe next time, all right? And believe me, you weren’t bothering me.” Quinn smiled as she moved to help another customer. “My name is Quinn, by the way.”
“How do you do that?” Taylor asked, pointing in the direction of the group of women when Quinn stood in front of her to get a draft beer.
“Reject her, yet still make her feel better when she walks away than she did when a night alone with you was a possibility in her mind.”
“It’s a gift.” Quinn laughed as she walked away with the beer she’d just gotten for a customer. After taking the guy’s money, she returned to Taylor. “I can teach you if you’d like.”
Taylor reached across the bar and backhanded her on the arm. Quinn feigned injury and laughed at Taylor’s bemused expression. Quinn turned serious though when she caught sight of Grace Everett walking toward the bar. Grace had been her best friend for the past twenty years, and Quinn knew from experience that Grace was upset about something. It was obvious in the way her forehead creased, and she was walking like she was trying to contain her anger and not quite making it.
Taylor seemed to realize it too, and she quickly vacated the seat before giving Grace a kiss on the cheek and retreating to her office. Quinn set a glass of red wine in front of Grace and leaned forward, trying to catch her eye. Not an easy feat considering Grace was staring at her own lap. Quinn placed a finger under her chin and forced her to look up.
“I thought you had a date with Lauren tonight,” Quinn said. “What happened?”
“She had to work,” Grace answered as she shrugged off her light jacket and flung it over the back of the empty bar stool next to her. It was mid May, and spring still hadn’t made much of an appearance in their part of New York. “An emergency surgery.”
Quinn nodded, knowing exactly what was going through Grace’s mind. One of Grace’s old girlfriends had been a surgeon, just like Lauren. The problem was, the ex would use work as an excuse to spend time with other women. Quinn knew without a doubt Grace was letting her mind wander back to that time.
“Honey, I’ve only met Lauren once, but she doesn’t seem to me to be anything like Holly,” Quinn said. Quinn didn’t like Lauren at all. Truth be told, Quinn hadn’t liked any of the women Grace had been involved with, but she’d never admit it to Grace. Every one of them had the potential to take Grace away from her and put a wedge between them. Quinn had seen it happen to other friends, and she’d be stupid not to realize it could happen to them too. Juliet, Quinn’s ex, had tried to come between them, but Quinn wouldn’t let it happen.
She knew enough not to talk bad about the woman her best friend was dating though, because that could cause all kinds of headaches Quinn had no desire to deal with. So, she’d continue to pretend she liked Lauren, and if Grace’s track record was any indication, they wouldn’t be together for very long anyway. But on the off chance this really was it for Grace, Quinn didn’t want her dislike of a permanent girlfriend to put a strain on their friendship.
Grace tilted her head to one side and studied Quinn, which made Quinn decidedly uncomfortable. Quinn grabbed a towel and began wiping off the bar as a way to keep from fidgeting under Grace’s scrutiny. She hated when Grace did this. It was almost as though she could read Quinn’s mind. It seemed there was never anything she could keep secret from Grace.
“Why don’t you like her?” Grace finally asked.
“Who?” Quinn thought she sounded convincing, but when Grace rolled her eyes and took a sip of her wine, Quinn knew she wasn’t buying the innocent act. She tucked one corner of the towel into the back pocket of her jeans and leaned on the counter again. She stared into Grace’s pale blue eyes and shook her head. “How do you do that? It’s like you always know what I’m thinking.”
“You do the same thing to me, you know,” Grace said as she slowly ran a finger around the rim of her wineglass.
“Maybe we’ve known each other too long,” Quinn said with a wink.
“Twenty years is too long? It’s not even half of our lives.”
Quinn winced as she straightened her posture. She didn’t like being reminded she was in her forties. In her mind, she didn’t feel any different than she had when she was twenty-five. Her mother liked to point out she didn’t act any different now than she had back then either. She turned to enter Grace’s glass of wine into the computer before facing her once more.
“Don’t think by changing the subject you can get away with not answering my question,” Grace said, waving a finger in her face. “Why don’t you like her?”
“I’m not going to get into this with you,” Quinn told her. She was uneasy with this line of questioning. “I say something bad about her, then you end up marrying her and our friendship is down the drain. It isn’t worth the risk.”
“I think our friendship is plenty strong enough to withstand brutal honesty when it comes to something so serious, don’t you?” Grace reached across the bar and grasped Quinn’s wrist, but never broke eye contact. “Imagine how things might have turned out differently if I’d told you about my reservations concerning Juliet. I kept quiet for the same reasons, and you ended up with your heart broken.”
“But you were there to pick up the pieces.” Quinn hated thinking about her breakup with Juliet. It made her angry, and it made her feel like a fool because she’d chosen to put her trust in a woman who hadn’t deserved it. She really hated being made a fool of.
“I was,” Grace said. “Just as I know you’ll always be there for me, no matter where either of us may end up.”
Quinn narrowed her eyes at her, wondering what those words really meant. The tightness in her chest at the thought of Grace possibly moving away was a bit alarming. Maybe too alarming when talking about a friend. Friends didn’t always live in close proximity, did they? They had lives, and moved on, and you could talk on the phone a couple times a year and have it seem like no time at all had passed since the last time you saw each other. The thought didn’t make the anxiety fade, but actually made it worse. She and Grace hadn’t gone more than a couple of days in a row without at least talking on the phone in the two decades they’d been friends.
“Are you trying to tell me something? Are you moving away with her?”
Grace bit her bottom lip the way she always did when she was dreading telling someone something they weren’t going to want to hear. Quinn shook her head and pulled her arm away from Grace’s grasp.
“There’s nothing definite, Quinn,” Grace told her. “She’s accepted a position at a hospital in Syracuse. She isn’t moving until the fall, and who knows what might happen in the meantime? The way my relationships usually go, we might not even still be together by then.”
Quinn didn’t know what to say. Grace was right about past relationships not working out. Usually after three or four months, it all fizzled out, and Grace was single again. Quinn couldn’t understand it, though. Grace was beautiful with her auburn hair and blue eyes. She worked out a couple of times a week so she was in good shape. Why couldn’t she make a relationship last?
“Well, if that’s the case, then the good doctor is an idiot, and you’re better off without her,” Quinn finally said. She was relieved when Grace laughed at the remark instead of taking it too seriously. Quinn held up a finger in the direction of the guy at the other end of the bar who was trying to get her attention. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Can we talk later? When you’re done working?” Grace asked. Quinn nodded. “I’ll bring the pizza.”
“You certainly know how to get to me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Grace answered with a smug smile. “I probably know you better than you know yourself.”
Of that, Quinn had no doubt.
Grace watched Quinn as she took care of her customers. She’d been tending bar for so long, she didn’t even have to think about what she was doing, which was evident in the way she continued to talk and laugh with the people waiting for their cocktails as she poured the drinks.
She envied the ease with which Quinn dealt with people. It was obviously second nature to her. Grace had to work at interacting with people, which was crazy since she owned her own bookstore. She’d often thought if she could simply own it and do absolutely nothing but deal with the books, she’d be perfectly content. Which, of course, would never work in a retail business.
She had just watched Quinn disappear into the storeroom behind the bar when she was grabbed from behind. She jumped but didn’t make a sound as she turned and saw Callie Burke, sexy smile firmly in place on her lips. Quinn’s younger sister took after her in the looks and charm department, there was certainly no doubt about that. Grace stood and gave Callie a warm hug and a kiss on her cheek.
“Where’s my sister hiding?” Callie asked, glancing around. There was nowhere to sit at the bar, so she stood behind Grace, one hand resting on her shoulder.
“I think she had to change a keg or something,” Grace told her. “What are you doing here? Quinn didn’t tell me you were in town.”
“Yeah, well, she doesn’t know yet,” Callie answered with a shrug.
Grace turned in her seat to get a better look at Callie and saw the determined set of her jaw. The muscles there clenched rapidly, a trait she and Quinn shared when something was upsetting them. Callie was still scanning the area behind the bar and refused to meet Grace’s eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Grace asked, knowing she wouldn’t tell her, but feeling like she had to ask. She cared about Callie, but Callie was even more guarded with her emotions than Quinn was. If that were at all possible.
“Nothing,” she said, plastering the megawatt, but so obviously fake, smile on her face again. “I just need a drink. It was a long drive from Atlanta.”
Just as the gentleman next to Grace vacated his seat, Quinn emerged from behind the bar and gave her little sister a bear hug before Callie even had the chance to grab the now empty bar stool. Grace smiled as she watched the two of them together. She struggled with the lump in her throat at the sibling love, something she’d never experience again since her brother had been killed in Afghanistan six years ago.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Quinn asked, a huge grin on her face. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming for a visit?”
“It’s not a visit,” Callie told her, and Grace winced at what she suspected was coming.
“Yeah?” Quinn slapped Callie on the back before Grace saw her looking around the immediate vicinity for Callie’s girlfriend. “Where’s Jan? You didn’t make her wait out in the car, did you?”
Callie looked away before mumbling something and heading for the restroom. Grace hit Quinn in the stomach with the back of her hand. Quinn looked hurt and raised her hands in a gesture of what the hell was that for?
“They broke up,” Grace said.
“She told you that?” Quinn asked, sounding skeptical. She glanced in the direction Callie had gone. “Why wouldn’t she have said something to me?”
“No, she didn’t tell me. She didn’t have to.”
“Then how do you know?”
“Oh, my God, Quinn, the two of you are so much alike it’s scary sometimes.” Grace shook her head and finished the last of her wine. “You never question it when I know what’s going on with you. You both have the same tells. Call me if you need to spend time with her after you get off. Otherwise I’ll meet you at your place.”
“Don’t forget the pizza,” Quinn said with a grin.
Grace went home to her apartment, a little one-bedroom above the bookstore she owned. She looked at her cell phone to make sure Lauren hadn’t called before plugging it in to charge the battery. She sighed as she collapsed onto the couch. She wasn’t entirely sure she was going to move with Lauren, and honestly, Grace wasn’t totally convinced Lauren had been serious when she made the suggestion.
“We’ve just met,” Grace said when Lauren told her about the job offer.
“You could come with me,” Lauren answered with a shrug.
That was it. Nothing else was said again by either one of them about it. Had she meant it, or was it just something to say, knowing Grace would likely never take her up on the offer?
She’d never intended mentioning it to Quinn, but when she’d asked, Grace couldn’t lie to her. Their friendship was so strong though, and she knew Quinn would support her in whatever decision she ultimately made. They’d been best friends since the time they were both working in the same grocery store twenty years ago. It had been awkward between them at first because Quinn expressed an interest in her. Grace admitted to herself she was attracted too, but she’d grown up a loner, and she really wanted a friend more than a lover when they’d met. Quinn agreed to a platonic relationship and never mentioned wanting anything more since.
Grace couldn’t say she wasn’t disappointed by it, but they’d forged a strong friendship, and they’d seen each other through some pretty rough times. Quinn was always there for her, and she knew by the end of the night Quinn would either have talked her out of going or would be encouraging her to follow her heart.
Grace just wasn’t sure which option she was rooting for.
She took a quick shower and headed out to Quinn’s.
“How long are you in town for?” Quinn asked Callie as she came around from behind the bar and took a seat next to her. It was almost midnight, and Taylor was taking over until closing as she usually did so Quinn could have something that somewhat resembled a normal life.
“I’m not sure,” Callie answered with a shrug.
Quinn didn’t miss the fact Chelsea had been making eye contact with Callie for the past hour or so, and Callie didn’t seem to be discouraging the attention. She threw an arm around Callie’s shoulders and forced her to turn back toward the bar.
“What the fuck?” Callie asked.
“She’s too young for you.”
“Which is Quinn-speak for back off, I’m interested,” Callie said with a knowing grin. “I get it. Message received.”
“And here I thought it was Quinn-speak for you have a girlfriend, Callie.” Quinn felt Callie’s shoulders stiffen under her arm, and she wished she’d listened to Grace earlier. It was becoming painfully clear she’d been right about her and Jan breaking up. “You want to talk about it?”
“No.” Callie gave a quick shake of her head and downed the rest of the beer she’d been drinking, which was about half a pint. She set it down on the bar a little too hard, causing Taylor to shoot a questioning glance their way.
Quinn waved her off before she could head in their direction. She leaned closer to Callie so she wouldn’t have to speak loud enough for anyone else to hear. “That’s fine. We don’t have to talk right now, but answer me this. Are you all right?”
Callie seemed to struggle with a response, but Quinn waited patiently for an answer. After a few minutes of Callie looking like she was going to say something before other things grabbed her attention, she finally sighed.
“We broke up. If you’d asked me yesterday afternoon if I was all right, I’d have said no.” She paused and gave Taylor a nod of appreciation when she set a fresh pint in front of her. Quinn watched Callie watching Taylor as she walked away.
“But?” Quinn prompted her, causing Callie’s head to whip around and look at her. “Now you are? All right, I mean.”
“Yeah, I think I am,” she answered, looking a little surprised. “Being here, seeing you and Grace, and Mom, and being a day removed from what happened, I think I’m just fine. Do you think that’s a little fucked up? I mean, I should be upset, shouldn’t I?”
“That’s something only you can answer,” Quinn said. This was something akin to her situation with Grace. If she said something against Jan, and then they ended up reconciling, she could see things going seriously bad between them. It wasn’t something she wanted to happen, so once again she kept her mouth shut.
Callie nodded and glanced over her shoulder toward Chelsea once again before shaking her head and laughing at herself.
“Yeah, I think I’ll be fine.”
“You need a place to stay tonight?” Quinn asked the question as a common courtesy but held her breath, hoping Callie would say no. She loved her sister dearly, but that didn’t mean she wanted to coexist under the same roof with her. She started to panic when Callie hesitated before answering.
“Mom’s letting me sleep on her couch tonight,” Callie finally said. “Thank you though. You’re coming for brunch tomorrow, right?”
“I always do,” Quinn said as she stood and pulled her jacket on. “You’re sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Okay then.” Quinn grasped her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Honey, I’m home,” Quinn called out as she walked through the front door of her house.
Grace smiled at the familiar greeting. Quinn said it whenever Grace was there before she got home. She handed a glass filled with bourbon to Quinn and raised her own. “To friendship.”
Quinn was looking at her with one eyebrow raised, but she set her glass down. Grace sighed and set hers next to it on the counter.
“You don’t usually drink anything stronger than wine,” Quinn said, her tone full of concern.
“How’s Callie?” A blatant attempt at deflection, but Quinn seemed to go with it.
“They broke up, but she says she’s okay,” Quinn answered. She walked out to the living room and sat in her usual spot at the end of the couch. Grace took the seat next to her. “She’s staying with Mom tonight and said she’d see me tomorrow for brunch. You’re coming, right?”
“I can’t,” Grace said. The disappointed frown Quinn gave her made her almost change her mind. Brunch was a weekly thing, and had been for years, and Grace rarely missed it. She loved Quinn’s mother like she was her own.
Grace’s parents were killed in a car accident when Grace had been only twelve. Her brother was fourteen at the time, and their grandparents had taken them in without hesitation. They were in their eighties now, and Grace liked to try to spend as much time with them as she could. Especially if she might be moving to Syracuse.
“You’re going to the lake?”
Grace nodded. Her grandparents had bought a home on the shore of Lake Erie a few years earlier, and Grace tried to visit them at least once a month. It was a three-hour drive for her now, but from Syracuse it would be almost five. She placed a hand on Quinn’s thigh and felt her tense before pulling her hand back.
“This isn’t what we were going to talk about.”
“No, it isn’t.” Quinn looked uncomfortable, but she smiled. “You’re really going to move to Syracuse?”
“I said I was thinking about it. Lauren won’t be moving until the end of October, so we’ll have time to figure things out.”
“I don’t think you should go.”
Grace studied Quinn’s face. She was so beautiful with her sculpted cheekbones and firm jaw. Her eyes were an amazing shade of green Grace had never seen before. She was wearing her dark brown hair longer these days. It was almost down to her shoulders. When they were younger, she’d often had it cut so short it would spike. Grace noticed a few gray hairs showing, but thought it better to not mention it.
“Why do you think I shouldn’t go?”
“Well, there’s your bookstore,” Quinn said, holding up a finger with each point she made. “And you’d be farther away from your grandparents. You grew up here. And you’d miss me.”
Grace smiled at the grin Quinn gave her, coupled with the nudge of an elbow into her ribs. All of Quinn’s points were valid, and it certainly wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought about all of those things on her own. Grace wasn’t getting any younger though, and she was feeling the need to settle down. Ms. Right had proved to be elusive, and Grace finally decided she needed to lower her standards a little.
“All very compelling points,” Grace said. “But like I told you, she won’t be going for a few more months, so there’s time to figure it all out. And I’m not entirely sure I am going. I’m just thinking about it.”
Quinn nodded, but she looked far from convinced.
“But the biggest reason I don’t think you should go? I don’t want you to,” Quinn said, her voice quiet. She refused to meet Grace’s eyes, and for some reason that bothered Grace.
“Hey,” Grace said, placing a hand on Quinn’s thigh. “It’s not like I’d be going to the end of the earth. Syracuse is only two hours away.”
“We’ve never lived more than ten miles apart since we met. You’re my best friend. I’ve grown rather fond of you.” Quinn did look at her then, and the mischievous look in her eye told Grace she was teasing, but Grace knew the statement was rooted in truth.
Quinn rarely shared her real feelings without the cloak of humor. Grace had to admit she’d come by the trait honestly, because her mother, Linda, was the same way. Callie too. Grace wasn’t familiar enough with Beth and Meg, Quinn’s older sisters, to know if they were the same way. She was willing to bet, given the animosity between the two older and two younger Burke sisters, the two sets of siblings probably had absolutely nothing in common.
“I’ve grown rather fond of you too,” Grace said with a smile. Quinn rested her head on the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling. Grace reached for her hand, and Quinn jumped slightly at the touch but didn’t pull away. “I shouldn’t have even said anything about it until I knew for sure what I was going to do.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Quinn said. She closed her eyes and reveled in the warmth of the hand covering hers. She turned her hand over so they could lace their fingers together, an innocuous motion she’d done countless times in the past, but this time she had to bite her tongue to keep from saying something she might regret. Instead, she put on a fake smile she hoped Grace wouldn’t see right through and met her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m just in a weird mood tonight. The bar’s closing for a couple of months for renovations soon, and then you hit me with this news. You know I’ll support you in whatever you choose to do, right? I really only want you to be happy.”
“I do know that,” Grace answered with a nod. “But for some reason you don’t think Lauren is the one who’ll make me happy. Why is that?”
Quinn stared at her, not knowing how in the hell to answer the question. After a moment, she squeezed Grace’s hand gently and decided to take a stab at it.
“Honestly? I don’t even know her, so I can’t possibly know that about her. In fact, if you were to bring her in here along with four random women, I wouldn’t even be able to pick her out of the group. That’s how much I dismissed her as suitable relationship material for you. She’s not your type.”
“I don’t have a type.” Grace pulled her hand away and got up to start pacing. Quinn smiled to herself because it was what Grace always did when she was agitated about something. And she was damn cute when she was agitated.
“Okay, smart-ass, what’s my type?” Grace stopped pacing and pinned Quinn to the couch with her stare.
“She’s a doctor. That’s so not your type. Remember Holly?”
Grace let out an exasperated sigh and placed her hands on her hips. Maybe reminding her of the woman who had used the excuse of being on call in order to cheat on her hadn’t been the wisest choice, but it was too late now.
“I didn’t ask you what isn’t my type. I asked you what is.”
“I don’t want to do this, okay?” Quinn shook her head. This night was going nothing like she’d hoped, but that had started the moment Grace mentioned the possibility of moving to Syracuse. “I have zero interest in arguing with you. I should have kept my mouth shut and just said I’m happy for you.”
“Can we just start the evening over again?” Grace asked. She flopped onto the couch next to Quinn again, wrapping her arms around Quinn and laying her head on her shoulder. “Pretend I never said anything about Syracuse?”
“We can try,” Quinn managed to say in spite of the tightness in her throat. Grace felt so good leaning against her she was experiencing sensory overload. She tried to regulate her breathing so Grace wouldn’t have any idea of the things racing through her mind. She turned her head slightly and took in the scent of Grace’s aloe and shea butter shampoo.
She sighed when she tried to pull away, but Grace held on tight to her arm. They were friends. She shouldn’t be having romantic feelings for her, but it was what always happened when Grace was getting serious about someone. And possibly moving two hours away definitely fell under the category of serious. She’d never told Grace about these feelings, because she knew they always went away, sort of, once Grace was single again, so why rock the boat, so to speak?