Chapter One

Nothing made Berit Matthews feel more electric than pouring the perfect cocktail while a line of beautiful women waited their turn for her services. A little flick of her wrist, a well-timed wink, and the slow rub of a lime wedge along the cool rim of a glass made more patrons swoon than an articulate pickup line. Berit lived for busy nights like these. Her bar was always bustling on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Berit had opened the Dollhouse nearly five years ago and it became her home, her baby, and the only long-term commitment in her life—a fact Berit was more than okay with. The dim lighting in the lounge area cast faint shadows along the Dollhouse’s attractive waitresses as they served guests.

“What are the specials for tonight?” a tall blonde asked, leaning over the bar provocatively.

Berit looked from the woman’s cleavage to her smoky eyes. She didn’t recognize her as a regular. “It’s Friday, so we have three-dollar craft beers and a signature cocktail, the Friday Night Fever.”

“What’s in that?”

“Gin, vermouth, Dubonnet Rouge, and just a hint of anisette.” Berit smiled and pulled out a chilled martini glass but stopped when her customer’s face turned sour.

“That sounds disgusting,” she said, reaching over and holding Berit’s hand to stop her. “I’d love a beer, though. One that doesn’t taste too much like beer but will still give me a buzz.”

Berit sighed deeply, but her polite smile never wavered. For every three customers who’d appreciate artisan cocktails and local craft beer, one person couldn’t care less. Berit pulled a stocky bottle from one of the many refrigerators beneath the bar and popped the top. A thin cloud formed above the lip of the bottle. She placed it on a small napkin embossed with the Dollhouse’s logo and pushed it toward the woman.

“Try this,” Berit said, leaning forward to be heard clearly over the chatter in the bar and the mix of pop hits and classic rock filling the space. “They added raspberries and a little lemon zest during brewing. I think you’ll like it.”

“I think you’re right.” She sipped from the bottle, her move practiced and seductive. “I’m not surprised you know exactly what I’d like.”

Berit smirked. “Would you like to start a tab?”

She placed a twenty on the bar and pulled the napkin out from beneath her beer. “Keep the change,” she said while scribbling on the napkin with a pen from her designer purse. “Call me sometime. Soon.” She held the napkin out for Berit but pulled it back before Berit could grab it. “My name is Annie.”

Berit snatched the napkin. “Nice to meet you, Annie.”

“Berit, stop flirting and take some orders,” a waitress said as she sidled up to the bar behind the partition separating bar guest orders from waitstaff orders. She placed her tray on the glossy wooden bar with a loud smack.

Berit kept her eyes on Annie and smiled. “Let me know if you need another beer, Annie.” She added a wink for good measure and sauntered toward the waitress. “Bellamy, what did I tell you about interrupting me while I’m with customers?” Berit liked to sound like a strict boss, but her dazzling smile and playful hazel eyes belied anything firm in her voice. She tucked the napkin into her back pocket and took several orders at once.

“How many does that make for tonight?”

“How many what?” Berit placed two full pint glasses on the bar top and collected a small pile of tips.

“Numbers. How many numbers?” Bellamy said as she waited for Berit’s full attention.

“I’m not counting.”

Bellamy shot her a disbelieving look.

“Seven, but really only four because a few were from regulars who slide me their number every week.”

“Silly them,” Bellamy said with a laugh. “I need two Blue Moons, a Yuengling, three Fevers, and a Manhattan, and I swear to God, Berit, if you put them in martini glasses you’re cleaning the mess.”

“I’ll make an exception and use the saucer glasses I usually reserve for champagne, but only for you.” Berit went about preparing the drinks, methodically grabbing cherries and orange slices for garnish. She handled multiple liquor bottles at once, counting as she poured a steady stream into two separate shakers. A dash of added flavors went into each cup before she sealed glasses into them and picked them up. Berit stared into the wide eyes of the women on the other side of the bar as she began shaking the cups. She spun them once and then twice on the flat of her palms, smiling when a cute redhead’s mouth fell open. A little added flair when shaking up cocktails went a long way for bar patrons. She poured the liquor and garnished the glasses accordingly before pulling back the handle of the beer tap. “Anything else?” she said with a cocky smile. Bellamy leaned farther into the lighting under the bar. Berit loved the way her dark skin glistened beneath the amber lights.

Bellamy waited for Berit to place the drinks securely in the center of her tray. “Plan on calling any of those numbers tonight?” Berit shook her head and Bellamy smiled, her white teeth contrasting with her skin. “What about my number?” She bit her lower lip.

Berit followed the deep V of Bellamy’s tank top with her eyes and licked her lips. “Why don’t you take those drinks to your table so I can watch you walk away?” Bellamy laughed and lifted the tray. She walked away with the most tempting sway to her full hips.

Berit returned to her work behind the bar. She loaded dirty glasses into a small portable dishwasher and wiped down any vacant spaces. Berit liked the Dollhouse to be clean and orderly at all times. More women lined up to be served, and she took the first of four women’s order.

“I’ll have two Slippery Nipples,” she said so innocently, Berit had to bite her tongue.

Berit flipped her sandy blond curls from her face and looked to the next woman, an attractive baby butch. “And for you?”

“Bud Light in a bottle, please.”

“We have some cheap craft beers tonight, if you’re interested,” Berit encouraged as she started on the shots.

“Just a Bud Light is fine.”

“Coming right up.”

“I’ll take over, Berit.” Another bartender, Lou, stepped in with a beer in one hand and a bottle of Baileys in the other. “They need your help in the storage room. We lost a case of Svedka, apparently.” Lou brushed the hair from her face with her shoulder.

Berit stepped back and wiped her hands on the towel she always kept tucked into the back of her tight jeans. “Did you check—”

“Where we’ve kept the cases of vodka for over four years? Yeah, I checked.” Lou’s attitude was out and proud that night. The butch who’d ordered the Bud smiled, clearly liking her new, feisty bartender better than Berit.

“I was going to suggest the receiving room, but whatever.” Berit waved her hands childishly. She stalked off toward the room that housed many, many bottles of liquor and cases of imported and domestic beer. Berit looked around, carefully checking every label on the full shelves to see if someone had stocked them incorrectly.

Berit loved everything about the Dollhouse, even its stockroom. All the different-colored bottles caught the light magically and painted the shelves with hypnotic prisms. She’d started planning for her business nearly ten years ago, and when the doors opened, she’d felt overwhelmed with pride.

She squatted and read each case stuffed below the last shelf on the wall. Lou wasn’t lying. She didn’t see any Svedka amongst the vodka. Berit made her way out of the stockroom, past the door to her office, and into the small receiving room where they took in deliveries and kept overstock. Each box was marked carefully with receiving dates and the initials of the individual who checked in the delivery. Berit grabbed the clipboard hanging on the far wall and read down the list of that week’s deliveries. She ran her finger along the list and landed on the final item: one case of Svedka vodka taken in that afternoon. The initials next to it: BM.

“Shit,” she said quietly. Berit hung the clipboard up and rushed to her office. She swung the door open and grimaced at the case of vodka sitting on her cluttered desk. Her lips flapped with a long exhale.

“Mom always said you’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached.”

Berit jumped at the intrusion. She lifted the box with a grunt and turned around. “Shut up, Lou.” Berit stormed past her younger sister and put the box in the storeroom where it belonged, ignoring Lou’s laughter.

“I knew I should’ve checked your office.”

“Jeez—”

“Don’t you dare say it!”

“Jeez Louise, why don’t you just turn into Mom already and get it over with.” Berit’s smirk of satisfaction fell when the box started to slip from her grip. She stacked it next to the rest of the vodka cases. She flipped her short, wavy hair from her eyes again. “I’d love to stay and fight, but I have a bar full of beautiful women waiting for me.” Berit pushed the sleeves of her flannel up, revealing the colorful tattoos on her left arm.

Lou followed Berit out to the bar. Right before they parted, she said, “Wow, I’m surprised your head fit through the doorway.”

Berit gave her sister a playful shove and reclaimed her spot behind the thirteen-foot bar.

The rest of the night went the same; women, and a few men, lined up and waited for perfectly crafted drinks. Crowds of people lounged and enjoyed the company around them. Berit knew no other feeling could compare to seeing people delight in her space, the one she had worked so hard to open. Berit would stand back and soak it all in from time to time, when a lull allowed her to watch as people sat and talked contently. Morristown, New Jersey, hadn’t been the same since Berit had brought the queer women’s scene to them, and if you asked any of the faces in the crowd, they’d agree everyone was better off with the Dollhouse on South Street.

A stout staff member approached Berit toward the end of the night, staring at her seriously as she pointed to a brass bell hanging by the bar. “If you don’t ring that damn bell, I will.”

Berit looked at her watch. Almost closing time. “You do the honors, Dee.” Berit stepped aside and flicked the switch for the fluorescent sign reading “Last Call.” The last call bell rang through the space.

Within thirty minutes, every tab was paid and Berit sat counting the register as one of her regulars, Rosa, finished her last drink.

“You should stay open until three,” she said before taking the final sip of her martini. Rosa never got drunk; she just liked to end some days surrounded by good vibes.

“If the town allowed it, I would.” Berit caught Bellamy milling about in her peripheral vision, undoubtedly waiting to get their night started. “But some people in this town barely like me at all, so I won’t rock the boat.” Berit shot Bellamy an apologetic smile. Their casual entanglement was still very new.

Rosa stood and threw a handful of folded bills on the bar. “What’s not to like about you? You got the dimples, the perfectly unstyled hair, and swagger.” Rosa looked Berit up and down like she was a life-sized version of her favorite dessert. “You definitely have that swagger.”

Berit laughed outright. “Thanks, Rosa. You really know how to make a girl feel special.”

“Tell that to my ex,” Rosa said with a sad, tired smile. “Good night, Berit. See you next week.”

“See you next week, Rosa.” Berit watched Rosa as she left. She knew more about Rosa than she did many of her friends. The blessing and the curse of being a bartender. The Dollhouse held nothing more than employees now. “Lou, you ready to close up?” Berit kept her eyes on Bellamy the whole time she spoke. She removed the folded towel from her back pocket and tossed it on the counter.

Bellamy approached Berit slowly, a predatory smirk playing on her full lips. “Your place or mine?”

“Mine,” Berit said quickly. “Hugo’s been alone all day, and the last time I sent Lou to check on him, she dressed him in a sweater.” She smiled at the thought of her loyal Chihuahua.

“Hey, he loved his cardigan. He looked quite fetchingin it.” Lou’s mouth fell open in a proud grin. Berit and Bellamy groaned.

“How long have you been waiting to make that joke?” Berit turned off the lights and led the way to the back door. They stepped out into the chilled spring night.

“Too long.”

“I figured.” Berit chuckled and walked to her yellow Jeep. She stopped and spun around to say, “I can’t wait to do this all again tomorrow.”

Berit had finished every night with the same sentiment, which had become a superstition of sorts. She felt the short phrase was the key to her success. Bellamy and Lou nodded to her before getting into their cars. Berit hesitated for a moment before getting out and running over to Bellamy’s car.

She rolled down the window and looked at Berit in confusion. “What are you—”

Berit cut her off with a long, languid kiss. She reached into the car window and slid her hand into the low neckline of Bellamy’s shirt. Berit squeezed Bellamy’s breast and toyed with her nipple but pulled back the moment Bellamy started to respond. “I’ve been wanting to do that all night. Now follow me home.”

She climbed into her Jeep and smiled. Berit Matthews had a successful business, a gorgeous woman willing to indulge in attachment-free sex, and the unconditional love of the perfect dog. It was everything she could ever want, and she knew it without a doubt.

 

Chapter Two

Lauren Daly caught every red light on her way home from work Saturday evening. Most law firms were closed on weekends, but Baxter, Smith, Krupa, and Caruso felt differently about business hours. The bigwig lawyers, the old men with their names on the building, worked Monday through Friday. Their assistants and paralegals, however, worked whatever hours their bosses decided. Lauren spent her entire day going over witness statements and double-checking the chronological order of facts for an upcoming trial. Her eyes hurt, she had two paper cuts on one finger, and her feet were killing her from the pumps she was required to wear to meet the office’s dress code. She slipped off her high heel and flexed the toes of her right foot while holding down the brake pedal with her left. She could feel the engine stutter and want to die as she waited.

Lauren sputtered her way through the quiet roads of Denville and dreamed of a day where her job would feel rewarding and she’d have a nice, comfortable home to rest her head at the end of a long day. But her stress level didn’t decrease when she turned onto her street. The closer she got to her house, the tighter the knot in her stomach grew. Her two-car driveway was already full, and the prime spot on the street was taken, leaving Lauren to park across the street from the small colonial house she paid more than half the bills for and still hated.

She saw more than two people in the small front windows. Lauren cut the engine of her car before it could stall, and she sat back. She didn’t know who had company and why they’d invite people over without telling her. But did they ever? Lauren rested her head against the worn cloth seat. She was tired. Her bones nearly ached with exhaustion, but she knew she wouldn’t find peace within her home. Everyone would be loud and inconsiderate, as they always were. Moving in with Jorge, her best friend from college, had seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. He was a blossoming engineer, and Lauren had secured a paralegal job at a prestigious law firm right out of school. Together they could afford to rent a two-bedroom home and live comfortably. Until Jorge fell in love. 

Lauren watched one of the shadows bounce about behind the thin curtain. Briana was an obnoxious, disrespectful leech. All of which Jorge was blind to. But Lauren couldn’t be too mad at Jorge, because their other roommate was her own fault. Rebecca had come to live with them after a mutual friend dumped her and kicked her to the curb. Lauren’s natural instinct to fix other people’s problems took over, so Rebecca had moved onto their couch, and then into Lauren’s bed, and eventually into Lauren’s heart. Two out of three went unbroken. Lauren counted the shadows of four people, which meant Rebecca wasn’t alone. Lauren sank down into her seat with a sigh.

How did she get here? She felt unhappy and uncomfortable at home, her job with a bunch of chauvinistic old men wasn’t taking her anywhere, and her social life was hindered by friends pledging their loyalty to Rebecca. Only one person remained as a confidante to Lauren. She picked up her phone and dialed Amber.

“What’s wrong?” Amber said after answering on the first ring.

“Why do you think something’s wrong?” Lauren could hear the exhaustion in her own voice. She had to strain to speak at a normal volume.

“You hate talking on the phone.”

“Well, I’m too tired to text, so here I am.” Lauren sat in silence, leaving Amber waiting for more. “Rebecca’s not alone,” she said in a whisper.

“Lauren, why is she even still there? You guys broke up for the fourth time three weeks ago. Whether or not you decide to get back together again, it’s not healthy for you to be living together.” Amber muttered a curse under her breath. “You need to kick her out.”

“The only reason why she’s still here is because unlike Briana, she actually contributes to the bills. Not many, but some. Jorge and I are both buried in student loans, so the extra money helps.”

“Where is she sleeping?”

“Excuse me?”

“She’s still sleeping in your bed, isn’t she?”

Lauren deserved every ounce of judgment she heard in Amber’s voice. “Sometimes,” she mumbled.

“I’m not entirely sure what you just said, but it didn’t sound like a no.” Amber’s voice sounded far away, and Lauren heard rustling on the other end of the phone. “I’m getting dressed and you need to get ready. We’re going out.”

Lauren moved to get out of the car, but every part of her body felt heavy. Her hand dropped away from the door handle. “I’m too tired to go out.”

“I’ll meet you at the Dollhouse in an hour.”

“Are your ears clogged? I just said I’m too tired to go out. I’m fried, dead, kaput.”

“And you’ll rise from the dead to meet me in an hour,” Amber said with a deep chuckle. “Look, Lauren, the way I see it is you can either stay home with your ex-girlfriend and her date for the evening, or come out with me and at least scope out other fish in the sea. The right choice seems pretty obvious.”

Lauren imagined the interior of the Dollhouse, and a sense of comfort already started to loosen her tense muscles. Something about the wood tones and cheery atmosphere welcomed her like a friendly hug every time she walked through the door. Lauren finally gave in. “I’ll go out with you under two conditions.”

“Which are?”

“The first round is on you, and you’ll pick me up because I’m almost out of gas.” Lauren swung her car door open, a new bounce to her step. An evening at the Dollhouse was the perfect way to remember why being single was so great. “I’ll see you in forty-five minutes?”

“You have yourself a deal.”

Lauren hung up as she approached the front door. The red paint was chipping around the doorknob, just another thing for Lauren to fix in her spare time and on her dime. She tucked a strand of her long chestnut hair behind her ear and opened the door. Loud laughter greeted her like an unwelcome party guest. Every head in the small living room spun to stare at her. Jorge was the only one smiling.

“Tough day at the office?” he said from his spot on the sofa.

“Always is.” Lauren didn’t look at Jorge when she answered. Her eyes were glued to the stunning blonde sprawled across Rebecca’s lap. “I’m going out.” She hurried away from the stomach-churning display and closed the door the instant she was in her room. Lauren was bothered by how much Rebecca’s happiness affected her. She hadn’t been in love with Rebecca since their first breakup, but seeing her with another woman under her own roof hurt, especially another woman who was so much better than Lauren.

A timid knock rang out from the door. “Let me in, Lauren.”

Lauren tripped over a pile of Rebecca’s clothes on her way to the closet. “I have to get ready, Jorge. I really am going out.”

“Just let me in for a minute. I want to talk.”

“I’m getting dressed, you’ll have to wait.”

“I’ve seen you naked more times than I can count. I think you’ve actually desensitized me to breasts at this point. Two minutes and I’ll even help you pick an outfit.”

Lauren smiled slightly. She looked down at her plain white dress shirt and back to her disorganized closet. What did she have to lose? She opened the door and said, “Two minutes. That’s all you get.”

Jorge sat on the edge of her bed and kept his eyes on the different shirt options Lauren held up. He dismissed the first three button-ups she suggested. “I didn’t know Rebecca was having anyone over, and I should’ve warned you.”

“Yes, you should have. What do you think, green or blue?” Lauren held up two flowy tanks, not really caring for either. “Fuck it, I’m wearing a T-shirt.”

Jorge scratched at his beard and pushed his thick glasses up his nose. “A T-shirt won’t get you any.”

“Who says I’m trying to ‘get any’? I don’t want to be home, and Amber invited me out.”

“Why don’t you and Amber date already?”

Lauren was slightly put off by the unexpected question. “Because.” Lauren pulled off her shirt and threw on the first plain black T-shirt she could find. She grabbed clean skinny jeans and finished the outfit with a pair of black heels that were stylish and comfortable in comparison to her work ones. “What do you think?” She turned to Jorge and held her arms up for appraisal.

He tilted his head and shrugged. “Boring, but not terrible. You may get one number tonight.”

“That’ll be one more than I usually get.” She looked herself over in the mirror. “Why am I taking fashion advice from you?” she said, looking at Jorge in the reflection. “Look at you.”

Jorge tugged at his faded T-shirt and wiped his palm on the basketball shorts he wore every day.

“I’m going to meet Amber outside.” Lauren grabbed her purse and started for the door.

“Wait,” Jorge said. He grabbed her wrist gently and held Lauren’s hand. “I’m really sorry about not giving you a heads-up.” He apologized every time a detail about Rebecca slipped his mind, a common occurrence lately.

Lauren placed her hand on his shoulder and smirked. “If you were really sorry, you’d get Briana to give us money so I could kick Rebecca out.” Jorge closed his eyes and hung his head. “That’s what I thought. I’ll be back later.”

Lauren rushed from her room, keeping her eyes on the front door so she didn’t see Rebecca or the model entertaining her for the evening. Any confidence she had was shaky. When she opened the door, the fresh air held the promise of freedom. She took a deep breath and held it for a moment before releasing it slowly. Getting out for the night was a good idea, and sitting with a good friend would be therapeutic. Lauren nodded and tried to shake away her anxieties as she stepped onto the stoop.

“Lauren, wait.” Rebecca’s shrill voice caught Lauren before she was out the door. Lauren turned slowly and saw Rebecca bouncing toward her. Her inky black curls danced hypnotically.

“What is it, Rebecca?” Lauren stood tall in spite of the desire to shrink into herself.

Rebecca smiled sweetly, the same smile she always wore before sharing something new and exciting with Lauren. “I want you to meet my girlfriend, Savannah. She’s a receptionist for a lawyer, too, and I figured you two would hit it off.”

Lauren’s brow creased. “I’m a paralegal, not a receptionist. They don’t even do the same—no,” she said, stopping herself and waving her left hand. “You know what? I have someone waiting for me.” Lauren looked over Rebecca’s shoulder to Savannah and put on a fake polite smile. “Nice to meet you, Savannah. Goodbye, everyone.”

“Bye,” Briana called out from the couch. She hadn’t even acknowledged Lauren until that moment.

Lauren felt her blood start to boil, and she rushed out the door. The chilly air bit at her bare arms. She needed a jacket, but she’d need to go back inside. She briefly weighed her options before hurrying to her car. Amber wouldn’t show up for another fifteen minutes, so she made a decision.

Lauren pulled her phone from her purse and typed out a message. Had to escape. I have enough singles for a couple drops of gas. Meet you at the bar. She threw her phone on the passenger seat and pulled down her visor to check her appearance in the small, unlit mirror.

Her hair hung listlessly to her shoulders and what little eyeliner she’d hurriedly applied that morning was faint enough to make her look more tired than she was. But her cheeks were rosy thanks to the spike in her blood pressure, which was one positive. Lauren stared at her reflection. She looked tired, and her brown eyes were duller than ever.

Once upon a time Lauren had been confident and proud of who she was, but she had been beaten down as of late. Her spirit now matched her stodgy exterior. But Lauren refused to believe her former, fun self was completely gone. She could have a happier life, and maybe pushing herself to go out tonight would be the start of her self-improvement.

 

Chapter Three

Lauren hummed along as Poison played through the bar. She laughed humorlessly to herself and agreed that every rose did have its thorn. She refused, for the third time that night, to turn around when someone new walked into the Dollhouse. Amber kept insisting she “take a quick look” and “check her out,” but Lauren continued to remind her friend she was there to relax and be at peace with herself.

“You sure picked an odd place to soul search,” Amber said over the rim of her highball glass. She finished the rest of her whiskey ginger in one long gulp and stared at the remaining cubes in the glass. “I want to know their secret. How do they make these so good?”

The bartender nearest to them laughed. She looked at them and said, “Real ginger ale and quality rye whiskey. Nothing artificial or cheap. Can I get you another?”

“Absolutely.” Amber pushed her empty glass aside.

“What about you?” the bartender asked Lauren with a wink.

Lauren looked from the other woman’s hazel eyes to her cocky smile and back to Amber’s empty glass. “I’ll, uh, have another Dolly, I guess,” Lauren said as inarticulately as possible. Amber looked from the bartender to her and laughed.

“Coming right up.”

Lauren ignored Amber’s amused expression. “Anyway, I’m not soul searching. I’m just trying to remember who I was before I wound up under a pile of debt, working for old men who require I wear the ugliest heels ever created.” Lauren stared off for a moment, watching as their bartender laughed easily with another member of the staff while pouring whiskey. Lauren couldn’t recall the last time she felt that relaxed. “I was someone completely different.” When she looked back at Amber, her friend had a new softness in her large dark eyes.

“I know you were,” Amber said, covering Lauren’s hand with her own. “I’ll help you remember her, even if that means buying you enough drinks to help you forget who you are today.”

Lauren cackled just as their drinks were delivered.

The server wore a brilliant smile. “Here you go. Do you have a tab?”

“Yes, under Amber, thank you.” Amber watched, her eyes fixated on the bartender as she walked away. Lauren leaned over to catch a glimpse of the tall, thin woman wiping her hands on the towel hanging from the back pocket of her black skinny jeans. “I love androgyny, don’t you?”

“She’s okay,” Lauren said with a noncommittal shrug. Every single woman at the bar, and probably even the men, would agree the bartender exceeded the simple definition of attractive. But Lauren was feeling particularly stubborn and felt the need to go against the grain. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”

“Oh, I’m into it, deeply.”

Lauren smiled at her friend, so feminine with her long, thick dark hair and naturally tan complexion. Amber was as Italian as New Jersey women got, and did she ever love her women boyish.

“Amber, I think you’re drooling.” Lauren said and laughed when Amber chucked her chin. “Why don’t you leave her your number?”

“Oh, please. Like she doesn’t get a dozen numbers stuffed in with her tips every night. And besides, I think you’re the one who caught her eye.”

Lauren snorted.

“I’m serious. Her attention was on you when she took our order, and she’s been looking over here constantly. She’s definitely interested.”

Lauren felt a fraction of her limp ego inflate. Amber’s kindness and support had been a rock to her over the years. Jorge’s earlier question came to mind. She grabbed Amber’s hand on the bar top again. “Maybe we should make a go of a relationship. We already have the supportive friendship, we just have to add sex.”

Amber chuckled into her drink. Lauren’s face remained still. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if I am? Would it be so terrible?” Lauren felt herself grow offended and defensive, a little dagger of hurt piercing her chest. “I’m not that bad.”

“Lauren, listen to me,” Amber said, taking Lauren’s hand in a stronger hold and bringing it to her chest. “I love you, and I love our friendship. You’re funny and sassy and attractive, but we wouldn’t work.” Lauren tried to argue, but Amber shushed her. “We’re looking for the same thing, and it’s not each other.” Amber placed Lauren’s hand back on the bar and pushed it toward her drink. “Now drink and decide what you want to do about the hottie behind the bar.”

Lauren hid her sad smile behind her glass. She didn’t feel disappointed or mad. Amber was right. In her heart, Lauren felt nothing more than platonic love for her friend, but loneliness and the sight of an ex-girlfriend moving on made crazy ideas seem possible. Crazy ideas like a hot bartender being interested in Lauren. “She can stare all she wants, she’s not my type.”

Amber’s mouth fell open. “Not your type? Honey, she’s everyone’s type. What part of her aren’t you into? Are the dimples too much? Maybe it’s her perfect hair, you know, the way it falls into her gorgeous eyes.” Amber turned back, blatantly checking out their server. “Her tattoos are so unsexy, and the way she moves with such confidence makes me want to gag.”

Lauren shook her head and said, “I’m not saying I don’t think she’s attractive, but she’s a bartender. I’m looking for someone with stability and a grownup job, not someone who flirts for extra money.” Amber’s pinched features startled Lauren. “What?”

“A lot of what you just said was judgey and made you sound shallow.”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “I’m not judging anyone, but you’re right. Bartending is a grownup job and should be respected as such, but what’s her future? She’s probably twenty-five and going with the flow.” Lauren watched how the woman in question laughed freely, her smile never dimming. Life hadn’t squashed her spirits yet.

 

v

 

Berit grabbed three shot glasses and lined them up perfectly. She shifted the pint glass she had secured in the shaker and started to pour ruby red liquid into the glasses. She filled each to the brim, placing them carefully in front of two waiting women.

“Only two are for us,” one of the women said while folding a five dollar bill in half and placing the third shot atop it. “The other is for you.”

Berit smiled politely. “Thank you, but my boss doesn’t like us drinking on the job. She’s pretty strict about it.”

“Your boss is a party pooper.”

“I know, the staff keeps telling her that. Enjoy the shots.” Berit leaned in and added quietly, “I only charged you for the two.” She walked toward Lou, stopping along the way to adjust bottles so their labels were facing out. “I just got called a party pooper for not letting the staff drink while they’re working.”

Lou chuckled. “You are a party pooper, but not for that reason.” Lou wiped down a stack of tumblers fresh out of the dishwasher. Water spots drove Berit crazy. “Speaking of staff, what’s going on between you and Bellamy?”

“What do you mean?” Berit feigned cluelessness. She knew trying to hide her social life from her sister was pointless, but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t try.

“You know exactly what I mean. Leaving together, the looks and the exchanges. And don’t think for a moment I didn’t catch you leaning into her window last night. You’re many things, Berit, but subtle isn’t one of them.”

Berit looked across at the woman in question. Bellamy was wearing tight black pants and another low-cut top. “We’re friends with benefits.”

“Another friend and more benefits. Just what you need.”

“You’re starting to sound like Mom, again,” Berit said, whipping Lou with her towel.

“I know. I’ve been dying to tell you to get a haircut, too.” Berit laughed heartily and ran her fingers through her floppy waves. “In all seriousness, I understand not wanting to get attached. Relationships are hard and scary, but I want you to meet someone that makes you as happy as this bar makes you.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to get attached. I’m completely open to falling head over heels in love with someone. I just haven’t met that woman yet.”

“And what about sweet, stunning, hilarious Bellamy?”

Berit looked around to check on patrons and make sure no other staff members were nearby. “Can you keep a secret?” Lou gave her an offended look, as if she hadn’t kept her every secret since they were five. “Bellamy is crazy about someone, but her crush is going through a tough breakup right now, and Bellamy thinks it’s best to wait for the dust to clear.”

“Really? Who is it?”

Berit shook her head. She could speculate, but she refused to be the conductor on the Dollhouse’s gossip train. “She refuses to tell me,” Berit said. She was looking for the waitress in question, but she got distracted by the brunette at the end of the bar. She and the sadness in her dark eyes piqued Berit’s curiosity. “Have you ever seen her before?” Berit nodded slightly for Lou to look.

Lou craned her neck. “Which one? There’s a crowd of women down there.”

“All the way at the end.” Berit bit at her thumbnail and stared in the opposite direction, trying to play it cool.

“I’ve seen her a few times, but only recently.”

A new line formed at the bar, pulling Berit away from Lou, but that didn’t deter her from learning more. “Is she usually with someone?” she said loudly. Berit started taking orders.

Lou shook her head and stepped in to help. “Only the woman next to her, and sometimes they’re in a large group.”

“How come I don’t recognize her?” Berit stopped pouring a drink at Lou’s bellowing laughter.

“No offense, Berit, but you’re more likely to remember a drink order than a name or face.” Lou patted Berit on the back as she passed behind the bar.

“That’s not true. I know my regulars.”

“At the bar, yes, but she usually sits at a table. Maybe tonight’s your lucky night,” Lou said with an elbow to Berit’s side. “Maybe she’s the woman you’ve been looking for.”

It was Berit’s turn to laugh.

“That’s highly unlikely.” Berit looked back to the sullen woman and noticed her glass was half full. “I’m going to talk to her.”

“Atta girl, Berit, go talk to your soul mate.”

“Shut up,” Berit grumbled. She walked the length of the bar, her confidence building with each step. The two women at the end of the bar looked at Berit the moment she arrived in front of them. “Can I get you another drink?” Berit wore her most charming smile, the one that had landed her more phone numbers than she could count. Both her charm and smile faltered when the woman shot a sour look at her.

“My glass is half empty. Why would I need a refill so soon? You barely gave me time to drink this one.”

An unhappy customer was new territory for Berit, and she stood in silent shock. She looked to the other woman for help.

“Lauren, she’s just doing her job.” Berit perked up at the use of a name. “I’m pretty sure they’re required to check on everyone in a timely manner.”

Berit’s bravado came rushing back. “You are correct, but I also wanted to make sure Laurenwas having a good time.” Berit looked directly into Lauren’s dark eyes and waited for a reaction. A smile, maybe a small giggle drawn out by unexpected attention, but Berit didn’t expect a negative reaction from Lauren.

She stood and threw her purse on her shoulder. “I’m out of here. Call me later.” Lauren walked right out of the Dollhouse without a backward glance.

Lauren’s friend turned back to Berit with a grimace. “I apologize for her. She had a tough week.”

“I work at a bar,” Berit said with a shrug. “I see it all the time.”

“Somehow, I find that very hard to believe. Amber,” she said, extending her hand for Berit to shake.

“I’m Berit, and it’s very nice to meet you. Can I get you anything else?”

“No. I should get going and follow up with Lauren.” Amber stood and placed a fifty dollar bill on the bar.

“I hope I didn’t scare her away from the Dollhouse for good.”

“There’s not a single lesbian in New Jersey that’d willingly stay away from this place. It’s amazing.”

Berit beamed with pride. “Thank you.”

Amber stood and pulled on her light jacket. “Please pass the message along to the owner. She did a great job with this place. Have a good night.”

Berit watched Amber leave. She took their glasses from the bar top and went about the quick routine of rinsing and wiping the rim with a soapy sponge before loading them into the dishwasher. Some teased her for being a clean freak, but she had been served too many drinks in dirty glasses to take a chance on being anything less than thorough.

Lou came over soon after. “How’d it go?”

“She left.”

“Before you had a chance to talk to her?”

“No. I talked to her, then she got up and left,” Berit said, motioning from the barstool to the door. Lou stifled a laugh. “Laugh all you want, but I think you were right.”

“About?”

“I think she’s my soul mate,” Berit said with a wry smile.

Lou’s expression fell, and she blew a wayward strand of hair from her face. “The one woman who won’t give you the time of day is your soul mate?”

Berit watched Dee as she approached and smiled. She handed Berit a list of orders. After looking over the slip of paper, Berit looked to Lou again. “I really think she may be.”

“I love you because you’re my sister, but I really hate you sometimes.”

Berit chuckled. She grabbed top-shelf whiskey in one hand and sour mix in the other. She thought of what to say the next time Lauren stepped foot in her bar as she tossed a bottle into the air and caught it after two full spins. Berit hoped Lauren was prepared for the full-on Berit Matthews wooing experience.