With a swipe of the towel, Nika Ryder wiped the wet mark off the top of the bar. That done, she moved down to the customer who stood on the other side.
"And what can I get you to drink, Mike?" she asked the man, one of her few regulars.
"A dark ale would go down good right about now, love."
Nika smiled. "One pint of dark ale coming up."
She walked over to the tap and pulled a pint of draft. After she placed it in front of Mike and took his money, Nika put it in the register behind her. She gazed about the open room and sighed. She'd hoped the pub would have been a lot busier than this tonight.
The pub, The Old Sow, was Nika's, and her only source of income. When she had immigrated to the UK from Sacramento, California just a little over nine months ago, she hadn't expected to find herself the sole proprietor of a pub in Norwich. No, the whole owning a pub had been her then boyfriend's idea. She'd met David in California. He'd originally been from Norwich, and after being together for a year, he'd talked her into the grand plan of returning to his hometown and opening a pub of their own.
Nika snorted to herself as she served another customer who sat on one of the barstools. Letting David talk her into moving to the other side of the world had been her first mistake. The second—when she'd believed he'd actually loved her enough to want to stick it out with her, even when things had started to become rough.
After six months of running the pub—hard damn work that didn't pay off with the amount of profits they had hoped for—the bastard had up and left her for another woman, moving in with said woman in London. So there Nika was, stuck in Norwich with a pub that was barely making enough money to stay open let alone provide enough for her to move back to the States.
More often than not, Nika pictured herself strangling her rat bastard ex-boyfriend. She would get a lot of satisfaction listening to the asshole struggle to take his next breath.
Since there weren't too many customers, Nika went back to the kitchen to make sure everything was all right with her cook. She'd inherited Lee when she and David had bought the pub from the original owners. In his late forties, Lee had worked at The Old Sow for a number of years. If not for him, Nika had no illusions to the fact that she would have fallen apart after David had hightailed it out of her life. Lee was her rock to lean on. The man knew how to run the pub better than she did. Back in the States, she'd worked in a few bars, but that had by no means given her the experience she needed to run her own establishment.
Pushing the swinging kitchen door open, Nika stuck her head around it and smiled when Lee looked up from preparing one of the few food orders they'd received. "How is it going in here?" she asked.
"Good. How goes the front?"
"Four tables and a few sitting at the bar."
"So in other words, not nearly what you want for a Friday night."
Nika sighed. "No. I wish I knew what to do to draw in a bigger crowd."
"Just give it time. All it takes is a few more regulars and business will get better."
"Lee, the ever optimistic one. I wish I could keep your positive attitude. It's been over eight months since The Old Sow re-opened under new management, and they only trickle in. I just wish I hadn't listened to David when he suggested we close the pub down for that first month to do some remodeling."
Lee pulled a small pan out of the oven and plated the steaming food. He then put the plate on the stainless steel counter under the warming lights. Since Nika couldn't afford to pay another employee, she worked the bar as well as served the food.
Stepping inside the kitchen, Nika went and picked up the plate on her side of the counter. She then asked, "What table is this for?"
"Table three," Lee replied. "I know I've said this before, but I'm going to say it again. You could always try to sell the pub."
Nika shook her head. "No, that isn't an option. I wouldn't be able to sell it high enough to pay off all the debts, and have any money left to rent a flat while I looked for a job. At least keeping the pub I get to live upstairs rent free."
Lee held up his hands in surrender. "I know, I know. Go serve the food before it gets cold."
Carrying the plate in both hands, Nika used her hip to open the swinging door, and delivered the food. That done, she returned to the bar.
Just as she walked behind it, the pub's door opened, and a man stepped inside. Nika stared when he looked around before slowly walking to one of the empty tables at the back of the room. Her gaze followed him. He was huge, at least six and a half feet tall with a weightlifter's body. His shaggy brown hair just barely touched the top of his very broad shoulders. Nika lowered her gaze to his jean-clad ass and sucked in a breath. The man had a hard, muscled butt she'd love to get her hands on.
Giving herself a mental slap in the face, Nika told herself to snap out of it. After David, she'd sworn off men for the time being. In no way did she want to find herself in the same situation—dumped for something better. And besides, running the pub five days a week didn't exactly leave her enough time to actually date, even if she wanted to. It was all right to look, but that was as far as she wanted to go.
Garrick slipped into the chair at a back table and scanned the pub. He'd had no luck hunting his prey tonight; Fenris' werewolves appeared to be lying low, so he'd decided to stop by The Old Sow for a pint before he returned to the mansion. He hadn't been inside the pub since the new owners had re-opened for business. He noted the newer paint on the walls and the updated décor. Definitely an improvement, and a lot less drab from what he remembered. Obviously they'd done some upgrading in the hopes of attracting more customers, but the pub wasn't even a quarter full. If tonight was indicative of the amount of business they normally did, he had to wonder how long the new owners would stick it out before they called it quits.
His gaze landed on the woman serving drinks behind the bar. He took in her long, light blonde hair that fell around her shoulders. She looked young, but compared to his well over a thousand years, all mortals were young. Garrick watched her for a few more seconds before turning to scan the rest of the pub, looking for a waiter or waitress. He was ready for a beer. When he didn't see anyone else attending the few customers occupying a scattering of tables, he figured the blonde must work the taproom by herself.
Sure enough, after drawing a pint for another customer, she walked around the bar and headed toward him. Now able to view her head-on, he liked what he saw. She was more than pretty with her high cheekbones, small nose, and full lips. Being a werewolf, he was able to see the color of her eyes from the distance that separated them. They were violet blue. He ran his gaze up and down her slim yet curvy build that her tight blue jeans and form-fitting, grey T-shirt did nothing to hide. His grin grew bigger the closer she came. Would she be up to giving him a bit of fun before the night was over?
When she reached his table and her scent washed over him, Garrick stiffened as his cock went instantly rock hard, straining against the zipper of his jeans. He drew in another lungful of her heady aroma and had to fight from going wolf, fisting his hands on the tabletop to stop his claws from breaking through the tips of his fingers. Inside him, his wolf threw back its head and howled with longing.
The woman smiled and asked, "What can I get you to drink?"
The sound of her American accent had Garrick wanting to hear more of it, preferably, as she called out his name while he pounded into her. His cock jerked inside his jeans when his gaze landed on her mouth, and he pictured her using it to suck him off.
"Hello? Do you want to order now, or do you need a few more minutes?" she asked.
Garrick squeezed his hands tighter, feeling the tips of his claws just beneath the surface of his skin. He had to pull himself together before his eyes went wolf. "I'll have an ale," he managed to say stiffly.
She nodded, then turned to walk back toward the bar. He followed her with his eyes. By Tiw, the Sky Father, he was lost. Having watched two of his brothers-in-arms, Raed and Algar, find their mates, Garrick knew the signs. And having a woman's scent stir his wolf was the first. The blonde had to be the one woman meant for him.
He didn't know how he felt about that. The idea of him finding his mate had left him kind of blasé about the whole thing. Garrick enjoyed women, but he'd just never had the urge to want one bad enough to stick with her. He had his fun while it lasted, then walked away when it ended. With a mate, there would be no walking away, ever.
The blonde returned to his table carrying his pint of ale. After she placed it in front of him, Garrick fished out enough pound notes from his front jeans' pocket to pay for it and handed them to her.
Before she walked away, he said, "Your boss should hire you another pair of hands to help. I noticed you're working the bar and serving the tables."
She chuckled and shook her head. "I am the boss. I own the pub. I'd love to have some more wait staff, but for now you'll just have to put up with me."
"I didn't realize an American had bought the pub. What part of the States are you from?"
"California. Sacramento, to be exact, but I call Norwich my home now. If you want another pint, just wave me over."
She went to walk away, but Garrick stopped her once again, wanting to keep her near. "What's your name?"
He stuck out his hand and waited for Nika to take it. When she did, he closed his hand around hers, skimming his fingers over her soft skin. Touching her made him want to yank her onto his lap and see if her lips were as kissable as they looked.
As if she'd seen something in his expression that clued her in to what he was thinking, Nika tugged at her hand until he released it and took a step away from the table. Garrick didn't miss the slight flush of her cheeks, or the deep breath she took.
"It was nice meeting you, Garrick," she said. "But I really should get back to the bar."
Nika turned and wove her way around the tables to the bar at the other end of the room. Garrick picked up his pint of ale and took a sip. He watched her, following every move she made. As if she sensed his gaze, Nika looked his way every once in a while.
Garrick sat there, nursing his beer, until the rest of the customers slowly left, leaving him alone, sitting in the taproom. Knowing what Nika would be to him, he was reluctant to leave the pub and her. By now, he had memorized every single one of her features, and her scent had burned itself into his brain. He wanted—no, he hungered for—one taste of her before he left her for the night.
Now that they were basically alone—except for the one mortal male he scented closed away in the kitchen—Garrick intended to get his taste. When Nika walked out from behind the bar, heading in his direction, he got up from the table and met her halfway.
"I was just on my way over to tell you it's closing time," she said with a smile.
He let some of the hunger he felt for her show in his eyes. The smile she wore faded as her violet-eyed gaze latched onto his. He heard her heart beat a little faster. The sight of the tip of her tongue coming out to lick her lips just about undid him. His cock throbbed, and he ached to pull her into his arms to show her just how much she affected him. Instead, he moved a little closer. Much to his pleasure, she stood her ground.
"I guess if you're closing I should be on my way," he said as he crowded even closer. "But I'll be back. I've found something here that I'm more than interested in." He now stood so close Nika had to crane her neck to look him in the face.
She swallowed audibly, and then said in a breathy voice, "Oh. And what would that be?"
He bent his head until there were a few scant inches between their lips. Garrick pulled more of her intoxicating scent into his lungs. "Something that I want very much. Something I hope will want me just as much too."
Nika's lips parted on a sharp, indrawn breath. Garrick went to lower his mouth to hers, expecting to finally get his first taste of her. She'd given him all the signals that she would let him kiss her.
Just before their lips met, her hand shot up to cover his mouth, and she pushed him away. She then put some distance between them. Garrick blinked in surprise. She'd refused him. Why would she do that when her body was telling him yes? Besides her rapid breathing, her nipples had grown taut beneath her T-shirt, and the smell of her arousal had mixed in with her scent.
He tried to close the distance between them again, but she held out her hand toward him and shook her head. "Sorry, Garrick, but I'm not one of the items on the menu here."
Undaunted, he asked, "Would you make an exception for me?"
"I'd definitely make it worth your while. All. Night. Long." Garrick made his voice huskier as he said those last three words.
Nika shivered, and the scent of her arousal grew stronger. He thought he had her then, but she shook her head, a scowl forming on her face. "Nice try, Garrick, but I'm not biting."
Before Garrick managed to say anything else that might entice Nika to see things his way, the kitchen door swung open and the male mortal stepped into the taproom. He looked at Garrick and then at Nika. To her, he asked, "Everything all right in here, Nika?"
"I'm fine, Lee," she said. "Garrick here was just leaving. Weren't you, Garrick?"
Garrick had to resist the urge to growl and snap his teeth at the other man. He and his wolf didn't like the idea of Lee trying to protect the woman who could be his mate. Garrick wanted to be the male only accorded that privilege.
Fighting to keep his wolf at bay, knowing if his control slipped and Nika saw his eyes change or his claws come out she more than likely would run from him, he decided to let things go for now. He'd give up his chance to taste her lips, but that didn't mean he was giving up completely. He'd just keep coming back to the pub until he somehow managed to get Nika to change her mind about him.
On his way to the door, Garrick paused only long enough to caress Nika's cheek with the back of his hand. As he walked outside, his sensitive hearing picked up her almost-silent sigh. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, he smiled. She may have told him no, but she wasn't immune to his advances as she'd like him to believe.