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Triple SEC
2024
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"As a bartender at Terror & Virtue, a swanky New York City cocktail lounge known for its romantic atmosphere and Insta-worthy drinks, Mel has witnessed plenty of disastrous dates. That, coupled with her own romantic life being in shambles, has Mel convinced love doesn't exist. Everything changes when Bebe walks into the bar. She's beautiful, funny, knows her whiskeys--and is happily married to her partner, Kade. Mel's resigned to forget the whole thing, but Bebe makes her a unique offer: since she and Kade have an open marriage, she's interested in taking Mel on a date. What starts as a fun romp turns into a burgeoning relationship, and soon Mel is trying all sorts of things she'd been avoiding, from grand romantic gestures to steamy exploits. Mel even gets the self-confidence to enter a cocktail competition that would make her dream of opening her own bar a reality. In the chaotic whirl of all these new experiences, Mel realizes there might be a spark between her and Kade, too. As Bebe, Kade, and Mel explore their connections, Mel begins to think that real love might be more expansive than she ever thought possible. Triple Sec is a passionate, thirst-quenching love story that will have you asking for another round . . . or three"-- - (Baker & Taylor)

Convinced love doesn’t exist, Mel, a bartender at a swanky NYC cocktail lounge, changes her mind when she becomes a throuple with Bebe and Kade, a fun romp that gives her the self-confidence to try things she’s never thought possible, discovering real love is more expansive than she ever thought possible. Original. - (Baker & Taylor)

A jaded bartender is wooed by a charmingly quirky couple in this fresh and sizzling polyamorous rom-com, set in the glamorous world of high-end cocktail bars—from the acclaimed author of the “tender, decadent, and sparklingly funny” (Lana Harper, New York Times bestselling author) Chef’s Choice.

As a bartender at Terror & Virtue, a swanky New York City cocktail lounge known for its romantic atmosphere and Insta-worthy drinks, Mel has witnessed plenty of disastrous dates. That, coupled with her own romantic life being in shambles, has Mel convinced love doesn’t exist.

Everything changes when Bebe walks into the bar. She’s beautiful, funny, knows her whiskeys—and is happily married to her partner, Kade. Mel’s resigned to forget the whole thing, but Bebe makes her a unique offer: since she and Kade have an open marriage, she’s interested in taking Mel on a date.

What starts as a fun romp turns into a burgeoning relationship, and soon Mel is trying all sorts of things she’d been avoiding, from grand romantic gestures to steamy exploits. Mel even gets the self-confidence to enter a cocktail competition that would make her dream of opening her own bar a reality. In the chaotic whirl of all these new experiences, Mel realizes there might be a spark between her and Kade, too. As Bebe, Kade, and Mel explore their connections, Mel begins to think that real love might be more expansive than she ever thought possible.

With TJ Alexander’s signature “witty and insightful voice, complex characters, and full-throated celebration of the joy of queer community” (Ava Wilder, author of How to Fake It in Hollywood), Triple Sec is a passionate, thirst-quenching love story that will have you asking for another round…or three. - (Simon and Schuster)

Author Biography

TJ Alexander, the critically acclaimed author of Second Chances in New Port Stephen, Chef’s Kiss, and Chef’s Choice, writes about queer love. Originally from Florida, they received their MA in writing and publishing from Emerson College in Boston. They live in New York City with their wife and various houseplants. - (Simon and Schuster)

First Chapter or Excerpt
Chapter 1


CHAPTER 1


Mel Sorrento stared at the black velvet box sitting on the Carrara marble bar top and tried not to roll her eyes.

It wasn’t the guy’s fault, or the fault of the engagement ring that probably cost something like fifty grand. Mel was just tired of this bullshit. Love. Marriage. Putting unethical gemstones into champagne flutes. All of it.

“So, okay,” the guy said. There was a fine sheen of sweat along his prematurely receding hairline. He was chalk white, his eyes darting around like he expected to be caught red-handed at any moment. “I told her I was going to the bathroom. She can’t see me, can she?” His head swiveled toward the back of the lounge, where the emerald velvet booths were more shadow than candlelight.

“No, you’re fine.” That was a tad optimistic. He actually looked like he was on the verge of fainting. Mel poured the guy a glass of ice water. Proposals usually didn’t go well if the question-popper passed out in the middle of it.

“Oh, thank you.” The man reached for it, but his hands must have been as sweaty as the rest of him, because he fumbled it badly. It landed with a terrific crash, broken glass mixing with crushed ice, the water making a mess of cocktail napkins and menus alike. “Fuck! I’m sorry.”

“No worries.” Mel swept up the glass with a rag and, without missing a beat, moved the ring box before the pool of ice water reached it. She cast an apologetic smile at the patrons seated at the bar, craning their necks to see what was going on. Jessica, her fellow bartender, swept by in a blur, doing her damnedest to serve everyone while Mel was otherwise occupied. Mel mouthed a silent thanks as she delivered glasses of water to guests on Mel’s side; Jessica waved it off with a tap to her own wedding band. She knew the score: proposals took precedence.

The ring guy, meanwhile, moaned like his guts were being torn up. “Maybe this is a sign that I shouldn’t ask her tonight. Would she really want to marry a guy like me? What if she says no? God, if she says no—”

“Take a breath, friend.” Mel caught his panicked gaze and held it. She was a good bartender, which meant she could stick an engagement ring in a glass, clean up a mess, and be someone’s therapist all at the same time. Possibly, at some point, she’d even mix a drink. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Darryl.”

Yeah, he looked like a Darryl.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Darryl,” she said. That was a stretch, but who cared. “You’re here in this beautiful place on this beautiful night and you’re going to ask the beautiful—what’s her name?”

“Pauline,” he said with an exhausted sigh.

“You’re going to ask Pauline something you’ve been wanting to ask her for a while now, right?” Mel swept the broken glass and ice into the beat-up champagne bucket she kept behind the bar for that exact purpose. Glassware accidents came with the territory. Mel would know; she was at Terror & Virtue six nights a week, and the only reason it wasn’t seven was because they were closed on Mondays. “Pauline’s going to gasp and cry, and it’ll all be so wonderful, you’ll completely forget the part where you were nervous.”

She tried not to think about how she’d proposed to her now-ex: a frank discussion over morning coffee while rain pattered down the windows of their fifth-floor walk-up. She hadn’t been nervous because there had been nothing to ask, only the assumption that she and her then-girlfriend were on the same page. What a crock of shit that turned out to be. A few years after the vows, they weren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page. Hence the divorce.

Darryl leaned on the bar like he couldn’t keep himself upright. “You think so?” His gaze went to the ring box. “And that won’t get, like, lost or anything? I’ve been carrying it around for so long, I’m kind of afraid to let it out of my sight now.”

“Trust me.” Mel gave him a conspiratorial smile. “It’ll go off without a hitch. I’ve put hundreds of engagement rings in drinks.”

“Hundreds?” Darryl’s face fell. “I didn’t know it was that… common.”

“Well—” Mel couldn’t help but give an assessing look at their surroundings: a bastion of carefully constructed opulence, the kind of cocktail bar that asserted itself as romantic and classy with prices to match. Terror & Virtue was a perennial darling of all those Must Visit lists for good reason: it was tailor-made for an impressive date or a public proposal. “It’s not uncommon.” Did Darryl really think he was the first man to stick a diamond ring in a glass of champagne? Or rather, ask a capable bartender to do it for him?

“I want this to be special,” Darryl said. He sounded more like a whiny child than a man about to propose to his girlfriend, but at least he wasn’t hyperventilating anymore. “Is there something else you could do? Something more interesting?”

Mel tamped down the annoyance that rose inside her. This job paid well, but she deserved to be compensated extra for shit like this. She pasted on her best customer service smile and tried to think of something, anything, that would get Darryl out of her proverbial hair so she could deal with the rest of her guests.

Thankfully she was saved from having to come up with a suitably romantic idea. Daniel—best friend, coworker, roommate, a real triple threat—appeared with his serving tray, nimbly skirting around a palm tree in a huge brass pot and stopping right next to Darryl. He picked up the last order Mel had managed to complete—two Keelhaulers, a tiki-style confection of rum and papaya served in a golden pineapple and topped with a ludicrous sugared-fruit skewer. His eyes fell on the velvet box.

“I didn’t know you two were getting so serious,” he said, tossing the sweaty guest a wink to let him know it was all in good fun. “Tonight’s a big night for you, eh?” His round face and sharply trimmed goatee gave him an air of friendly benevolence that guests always gravitated toward.

“Darryl here would like to propose in a unique way,” Mel said. “What do you think we can do for him?” She took advantage of Darryl’s head being turned to lift a flute and make a slashing motion across her throat, indicating to Danny that the usual game plan would not cut it.

Daniel hefted his tray on his shoulder. “Oh my god, well, first off, congratulations,” he said to Darryl, free hand making his usual over-the-top gestures that tended to accompany his speech. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. Mel here is going to take good care of that ring.” He stopped gesturing long enough to put his hand on Darryl’s shoulder and leaned in like they were old friends sharing secrets. “Why don’t you put it on a garnish? That way, your special someone won’t have to fish it out from the bottom of a glass. Who wants that? Ugh, all sticky.” He made an exaggerated face of disgust.

Somewhere behind her, Mel heard another guest give a loud snort. She dutifully did not acknowledge it. One thing at a time.

“That might work.” Darryl turned back to Mel. “Do you think that’s special enough?”

She schooled her face into what she hoped was a grave mask of professionalism. “Pauline will love it.” She knew she had no business promising any such thing; she could only pray this guy wasn’t going to get shot down in front of a packed house. Why did people do this—put themselves out there to be humiliated in public? “What does she usually drink? I’ll make you something bespoke.”

People liked hearing the word “bespoke.” It made them feel fancy.

As predicted, Darryl’s eyes lit up. “That would be great. She, uh, I don’t know? She likes fruity drinks?”

Mel couldn’t imagine marrying someone who didn’t know her usual order, but to each their own. “I have just the thing. Don’t even stress.”

Daniel piped up. “I will personally deliver the precious cargo to your table. For now, why don’t you visit the men’s room, splash some water on your face, take a couple yogic breaths, then we’ll get this show on the road.”

“Yeah. Yes.” Darryl took Daniel’s free arm in a grateful grip. “Thank you.” He nodded to Mel across the bar. “And thank you for all your help. You’re right. It’s going to be fine.” He released Daniel and walked toward the restrooms, shaking his hands like fans, as if he were working out a cramp.

Mel gave Daniel a mild glare. “Now I’ve got to make an elaborate garnish, so thanks for that.” She grabbed the ring box and put it in her pocket for safekeeping. It barely weighed anything. Hard to believe something so small could cause such a big fuss.

“What are you complaining about? If she says yes, we’ll get a huge tip. You know how it goes.” He blew her a kiss and disappeared into the crowded lounge, tiki drinks held aloft.

Mel shook her head while she dumped the bucket of glass and ice into a nearby garbage can. She needed something long and pointy that the engagement ring could slide onto. A sprig of fresh rosemary would be ideal—she could skewer a couple plump blackberries dusted with edible gold glitter on it, do a riff on a Ramos fizz for Darryl and his (fingers crossed) bride-to-be. Hopefully Pauline liked the combination of summer berries and orange flower water.

Mel collected her ingredients, measuring them out with the ease of someone who’d done this a thousand times. As she clapped her Boston shaker shut and began her dry shake, she sized up the crowd. As usual, there were plenty of men in expensive suits leaning over flickering candles to speak in low murmurs to the women who accompanied them. Typical for their clientele: tech bros and finance guys, a few influencers, money to spare and show off, painfully heterosexual. Her gaze landed on a guy in a striped tie seated at the other end of her section.

Oh, great. Haircut was back.

Of all the Terror & Virtue regulars, Haircut was the worst. So named for his only defining characteristic—an unfortunately tight undercut that made him look like a right-wing motivational speaker—he came into the bar once or twice a week, always on a date, and never with the same woman. He was a lousy tipper. Five bucks on a ninety-dollar tab? Fuck off with that cheap shit. Mel couldn’t stand assholes who only tipped a dollar per drink like this was some college bar with a watered-down happy hour. Mel loaded her ice and began shaking in earnest, but even over the racket she made, she could hear Haircut talking to tonight’s unlucky plus-one.

“Yeah, I’ve never been here before either,” he said. “It sure is something, huh?” Mel counted down in her head: three, two, one… He reached for the woman’s hand right on cue. “I’m so glad I brought you. A special place for a special lady.”

As far as first date lies went, Mel supposed it was mild. But why couldn’t he just tell his dates he came here all the time? Did he want to seem more fun and spontaneous than he really was? Or was it a ploy to lull the women into thinking they might get a second date? Whatever the reason, Mel found the whole thing sleazy. Play the field all you like, but don’t play dirty—that was her feeling.

She strained the fizzes into a pair of chilled highballs, then finished them with a light top of soda water. Berries, herbs, and—what the hell, Darryl wanted different—a swan hastily constructed from lemon peels, and they were ready to go. Right on cue, Daniel reappeared to place them on his serving tray.

“Ring,” he said.

“Ring,” Mel confirmed. She got out the velvet box and removed the engagement ring, not bothering to note its carat count or shape or style before slipping it onto one of the rosemary sprigs. “Darryl’s in position?”

Daniel nodded. “He may or may not have thrown up in the men’s room, but he’s back at their table.” He shook a box of Tic Tacs in his hand, indicating he’d handled the worst of it.

“Then go, go, go!” Mel made a shooing motion toward the lounge. She watched him disappear behind one of the curtain swags. Finally, she could fill some pressing orders. Mel plucked a ticket for two swizzles, loaded each glass with pebble ice, and reached for the Amaretto. She was in the middle of rinsing out her jug when she heard a shocked squeal, followed by half the lounge clapping.

Another successful performance, Mel thought. Another chance to be a background player in someone’s magical night out, a footnote in the grand tale of their love story. All the usual horseshit.

Another snort of laughter brought her out of her thoughts. Right, there were other guests to see to.

She turned to the snorter seated in her section, the one she’d been ignoring for the entire Darryl saga. “I apologize for the wait. Can I—?”

Mel forgot what she was going to say the moment she laid eyes on her.

She had seen lots of beautiful women in lots of bars over the course of her career. That, by itself, barely even registered anymore. And this woman was beautiful, sure—honey-blond hair spilling over her shoulders, generous curves, peaches-and-cream complexion, lipstick so red, it looked like maraschino cherries—but Mel’s attention was arrested by the way she held herself, like she was seated on a throne and not a tufted barstool. When her gaze fell on Mel, she smiled in a way that made Mel feel like everyone else in the packed bar had vanished.

“That’s all right,” the woman said in a loud voice. (Mel loved loud talkers. They made hearing orders over the din of a crowded bar so much easier.) Her fingers played idly with her necklace, sliding the pendant back and forth on the delicate gold chain, but her hand stopped mid-slide under Mel’s gaze. She was wearing a navy suit tailored to her plump frame, with an Art Deco–ish brooch pinned to the lapel. Delicate silver flowers sat on a curved stem, quivering as she moved. Corporate, but not stuffy, which was odd for T&V. “Quite a night, hm? Full of excitement.”

“Sure is,” Mel agreed, even though so far it had been like any other night. She cleared her throat and went through the motions: the requisite glass of ice water placed perfectly in the center of a cocktail napkin bearing the T&V logo, the menu arranged alongside. “Have you visited us before?”

It was a standard question that Brent, the shift manager, liked them to ask. It gave the bartenders a chance to walk the uninitiated through the menu, get a sense of what the customer would like, build a rapport. The fact that this woman seemed so comfortable made Mel think this wasn’t her first time at Terror & Virtue, but Mel had never seen her before. And this wasn’t someone she would have forgotten.

“No, I’m a complete virgin,” the woman said. She smiled wider. “Please tell me you serve drinks here, because if it turns out this is a pizza joint, boy, will I have egg on my face.”

The laugh tumbled out of Mel before she could swallow it. Putting people at ease was supposed to be her job. “You’re in luck. We happen to offer a cocktail or two. I can make some recommendations if you like.” She braced her hands on the rail and leaned in. It was a pose she sometimes adopted to make the guest feel heard and understood. It also had the secondary use of showing off Mel’s toned arms where her shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal her tattoos. Brent insisted the bartenders wear a staid uniform of crisp white shirts, black bow ties, and suspenders, but allowed the more “colorful” staff to lean into the contrast. Customers got a thrill out of seeing someone with a dozen piercings and a shaved head dressed like an old-timey train conductor, and Mel was in a position to deliver.

The woman’s eyes—a deep hazel that reminded Mel of Central Park in autumn—tracked over Mel once more. She placed one fingertip on the black leather menu and pushed it aside unread. “My name’s Blair,” she said, extending the hand toward Mel, “but my friends call me Bebe.”

Mel stared at the offered hand—shell-pink manicured nails kept short; delicate fingers that didn’t look like they’d ever seen a day of manual labor—for half a second before wiping her damp hands on a dry bar towel and taking it in her own. It wasn’t her fault she was slow on the uptake; guests didn’t normally bother introducing themselves. “I’m Mel,” she said. She kept the handshake polite but firm, and the soft hand in hers responded in kind. “Pleasure to meet you, Blair.”

“Ah-ah.” She held up her free hand, a single admonishing finger stuck in the air. “I’d like to think we’re all friends here.”

Mel couldn’t speak for her brain, which was currently blue-screening, but certain parts of her were definitely on board with being “friends.” She could feel an embarrassing flutter-clench between her legs. This woman was clearly sent from some alternate dimension specifically to torment unsuspecting lesbians who were just trying to get through a damn shift.

“Of course,” she managed. “Pleasure to meet you, Bebe.”

Those red lips spread into a pleased grin. “Now, that’s more like it.” She reclaimed her hand from the overlong handshake and leaned back.

Okay, that was flirting. Right? Mel normally hated it when customers tried to flirt with her, but normally those customers were fintech dudes with all the personality of a wet napkin. She considered shutting Bebe down with a polite but unmistakable brush-off like she’d done a million times before (“Aw, thanks, but right now I’m only interested in making your drink.”), but something made her hesitate. Maybe it had just been too long since she’d held the attention of a beautiful woman. Maybe it comforted Mel to know that if she wanted to get back in the game, she could. Not that she’d ever want to. Not in any way that mattered.

Then again, maybe she was imagining the tension between them. Desperate to get back on script, Mel asked, “So what can I get you?”

“I’m an old-fashioned kind of girl,” she said, although if Mel’s expert ability to guess someone’s age was correct, this “girl” was a few years older than her, probably mid- to late-thirties. “I know most places do their own spin on an old-fashioned, but would you do me a favor?”

There was a pause in which Mel guessed she was meant to actually answer. “Anything.”

Bebe’s eyes widened in delight. “Would you make it for me the way you like it? It’s always a treat to taste a professional’s… interpretation.” She looked down at the marble bar top, then back up at Mel, her eyelashes working overtime.

Okay. Definitely flirting.

Mel hummed a doubtful tone. She made a mean old-fashioned, but she also knew a trap when she saw one. “Might be best for you to tell me what you like so I can give you exactly what you want. You’re the guest, after all.”

“What I want most is to be surprised,” Bebe said.

“I can’t even get a hint?” At this point, Mel’s well-honed bartender senses were tingling. She grabbed a lounge ticket for a gin and tonic plus a glass of prosecco, an order she could fulfill in her sleep, let alone while chatting with Bebe. Jessica and the two barbacks could only cover so much ground. She shouldn’t be dragging out this interaction, no matter how welcome it was. And yet— “Favorite labels, preferred flavor profiles…?”

Bebe’s lips quirked up playfully. “Shall I look up Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘surprise’ for you?”

“All right,” Mel said, finishing her prosecco pour and placing it alongside the G&T on a salver. “But if you hate it, it’s on the house.”

Mel liked whiskey well enough, but she always gravitated toward tequila—her drink of choice being the reliable paloma with a hint of rosemary-infused syrup. If Bebe wanted Mel’s personal version of an old-fashioned, she was going to get Mel unfiltered.

Orange blossom bitters and vanilla sugar muddled together, reposado and mezcal stirred fast and loose, one huge orb of ice in the glass, loud as it chimed against the sides. A pour from up high, more dramatic than was strictly necessary, but fuck it. Stirring the jug with the elegant silver bar spoon. A quick dip of a taster straw into the liquid, a burst of smoke-tinged sweetness on Mel’s tongue: not too bad. A flamed lime peel—not easy to pull off if you didn’t know where to pinch—and garnished with a single Luxardo cherry that sat on top of the ice, a vaguely erotic, dark red nub.

Mel placed the finished drink in front of Bebe. “Here you have a twist on the Oaxacan, which is a twist on the old-fashioned, which itself is a twist on the Holland gin, and so it goes, on and on and on, all the way back to the beginning.”

“And what do you call this one?” Bebe placed her hands flat on the bar on either side of the glass like it was a full-course meal that she was preparing to enjoy.

“Well, I invented it on the fly this very second, so it doesn’t have a name yet.” Mel shrugged. “Sorrento’s Stab in the Dark?” She’d have to remember to grab her ratty notebook that she kept shoved behind the register and write that down during the next lull.

Bebe laughed. It sounded like glitter. “That’s good, I like that.” She placed her fingertips on the glass, her eyes not leaving Mel’s for a second. “Sorrento. Italian?”

“Got it in one.” Probably obvious with her swarthy Mediterranean looks, but she lifted her forearm to show Bebe the outline of Italy’s boot anyway. “Great-grandparents came from here,” she said, tapping the coastline, “near Pompeii.” The tattoo had been an impulsive decision, like all the decisions she’d made in her early twenties; she didn’t feel much of a connection to her family, didn’t have any real pride in her heritage. Maybe she’d just been after a sense of belonging.

“Pompeii,” Bebe said, still not breaking eye contact. “I love a good disaster, myself.” She lifted the glass and took a sip.

Mel was helpless, caught in her gaze, watching her throat move as she swallowed. She felt nervous in a way that was rare for her these days, at least when it came to work. Her mixology prowess was the one thing she should be sure of, but Bebe had her questioning even that.

She dipped her chin at Bebe’s glass. “How is it?” Her small taste test had passed muster, but everyone was different. What Mel thought was tasty could easily be a train wreck on Bebe’s palate.

Bebe’s lipstick left a red imprint on the rim of her glass. A single word purred from her mouth: “Delicious.”

Mel was a grown-ass woman who couldn’t remember the last time she’d blushed, but damn if the entire surface of her skin didn’t feel like it was on fire now. “Good. I’m glad.”

“You should put this on the menu. I’m serious—it’s amazing.” Bebe took another sip, this time closing her eyes in bliss at the taste.

Mel suppressed a wince. “They’re pretty strict about menu curation here.” If she dared suggest it, Brent would pitch a fit and say they already had a perfectly good old-fashioned on offer, a bestseller, why mess with success, blah blah blah. She busied herself with rinsing her bar tools instead of getting angry about her stifled creativity. Someday, if she ever opened her own place, she could enjoy free rein over the offerings.

Bebe hummed in commiseration, then turned her voice toward levity. “Probably for the best,” she said, offhand. “I doubt anyone else could make this the way you can.” She took another, deeper sip of her cocktail, her eyes watching Mel.

Something was crackling between them. Mel loathed the idea of love, of course, but she did subscribe to the idea of chemistry. Some bodies were drawn to each other. That was science, that was gravity, that was stars and planets and space trash. Maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world to go home with a beautiful woman at the end of her shift. Just once.

All thoughts of that possibility were interrupted by someone raising her voice slightly louder than the combined hum of the room.

“No, I really think I should go.” There was an edge of panic in those words.

Mel’s head whipped up, her bartender senses now sounding alarm bells.

Haircut’s date was on her feet, struggling to get into her jacket while Haircut blocked her path to the exit.

“Come on. One more drink? It’s early. You’ve got time for one more quick drink,” he said.

Damn it. Terror & Virtue had a high-class reputation, but that did not make it immune from the kinds of disturbances that plagued any bar. Part of Mel’s job was to keep the peace—break up fights, cut off people who’d had too much, and, most pressingly, keep the clientele safe. Usually from pushy guys like this.

The woman next to Haircut was looking around for help, but no one else seemed inclined to step in. No one else seemed to notice, too wrapped up in their own conversations. Mel geared herself up to intervene, even though it might mean a stern talking-to later from Brent, who always thought there were “better ways” to deal with problem customers, like pretending everything was fine and selling more drinks. Her shoulders went back, and her jaw went tight.

“Excuse me,” a guy shouted from the other end of the bar. He was waving around his Amex. “I need to settle up now.”

Mel’s eyes darted between the guest and Haircut, trying to gauge which needed dealing with first, but then a soft hand touched her tense forearm, arresting her attention. Bebe wasn’t looking at her, though. Her eyes were narrowed in Haircut’s direction, giving Mel a view of her profile with its strong chin and aquiline nose.

“Let me take care of this for you,” she said. Her eyes met Mel’s again, full of steely determination. “All right?”

Mel nodded silently, taking the guest’s credit card while keeping an eye on the situation. Bebe slipped off her stool and sashayed over to Haircut. The guy was now crowding his date so that she was forced back onto her seat, his hand on her arm. Mel could hear him speaking in a low, cajoling tone that sent rageful fire up her spine. Bebe came up right behind him, a full head shorter than he was, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Harold! Is that you? Oh my god, it’s been forever and a day.”

Haircut—Harold? What?—spun around, his mouth flapping open and closed. He looked confused, though his gaze still found the time to linger along Bebe’s neckline. Gross.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

Mel listened to all this while running the Amex as fast as she possibly could. She’d never known a credit slip to print so slowly. She watched the show unfold in the giant mirror that made up the back wall of the bar as she waited.

“Fucking Harry, always with the jokes. Feels like we’re back in law school.” Bebe slapped him a couple of times on the arm. “How’ve you been? Here, let me get you a drink. Hello? Bartender?” She squeezed her way between Haircut and his date (who seemed as taken aback by this turn of events as he was) and made a show of flagging down Mel. “When you have a minute.”

Mel delivered the Amex slips slowly, approaching even slower to buy them all some time. She could see Bebe nudging the other woman with her elbow, urging her to take the opening and get out of there. Haircut’s date gave Bebe a bewildered look but caught on quickly. She headed for the door, walking backward.

“I’ll let you two catch up. Have a good night!” she told Haircut as she peaced the fuck out.

“What can I get you?” Mel asked, distracting him further. “Another Manhattan?” His usual.

“Uh.” Haircut turned to her, then his disappearing date, his face going red with frustration. “Hold on! Wait!” But she was already gone. Haircut rounded on Bebe, who was looking up at him with a wide, pleasant smile. “Lady, you’ve got the wrong guy, seriously. I didn’t go to law school. I got my MBA.”

“Oh?” Bebe examined him closely. “Wow, I’m so sorry. How embarrassing! You must have one of those faces. My mistake.” She floated away from the glaring man and back to her seat, tossing a secret smirk in Mel’s direction. Haircut grumbled something into his glass. It was still three-quarters full, so Mel could reasonably abandon him as a customer for the moment.

Which was good, because she had a ticker tape parade’s worth of tickets to get through, thanks to Bebe being so distracting. Daniel and a couple other servers were stationed at the end of the bar, pointedly waiting for their tables’ orders, not to mention all the people seated at the bar itself in need of second or third rounds. She lost herself in the rhythm of mixing for a few minutes—a handful of Naked Victor Hugos, their citrusy champagne cocktail; two of the aforementioned boring old-fashioneds; and a boatload of T&V’s signature drink, the Robespierre Club.

Better to concentrate on work, she thought, than alluring and mysterious women affecting heroic rescues. What was she thinking? How could she seriously consider taking a customer home? Mel hadn’t picked up anyone—ever. Fuck, that was depressing. Nine years of marriage and nothing to show for it. Even her ex-wife had that girlfriend, the one who’d started showing up on her Instagram four months (four!) after the papers were signed. She’s so easy to be with, one caption had said.

Not that Mel was bitter about it.

She stabbed a gilded cocktail stick through an olive and dropped it into an extra dirty martini. It sank to the bottom like a stone. She deposited the drink in front of the guest who’d ordered it and wished him a less-than-heartfelt cheers.

Another ten or fifteen minutes, and Mel had caught up on all her other work. She had no excuse not to check in with Bebe again. She wiped her hands on a clean bar towel and made her way over to where Bebe was sitting with her near-finished drink still in hand. “Can I get you another?” Mel asked, nodding at it.

“Yes, please.” Bebe smiled. “You might have turned me on to a new favorite, Mel.”

Hearing her name in that mouth, with that velvety voice, made Mel’s whole body throb. That sharp gaze settled on her, so she kept up the chatter, more self-conscious of the silence than she normally would be as she gathered up her tools. She cut her eyes toward Haircut, several seats away, grumpily pulling out some bills to fling on the bar before he took his leave. “How did you know how to handle that?” Mel asked with a subtle chin jut in his direction. “Most people wouldn’t have bothered. Or they would have let me deal with it.”

“I have a lot of talents,” Bebe said. “And I was in a better position to aid and abet the escapee.”

True enough. Mel had been prepared to act, but there were weird power dynamics between the server and the served that complicated things. She was surprised Bebe was aware of that. Her hands were soft enough to make it unusual.

“Well, thank you. It was masterful,” she said.

Bebe beamed at her, then her expression softened into something more thoughtful. “Listen, if I’m way off base here, please tell me, but would you be interested in coming to a little get-together at my place next week?”

“A get-together?” Mel echoed. Not exactly the vague fantasy she’d been harboring of a one-night stand, but maybe Bebe was the kind of person who liked to draw these things out.

“A dinner party. Low-key, a few friends. I love throwing dinner parties.” Bebe took the cherry from the top of her giant ball of ice and popped it into her mouth, chewing slowly. Mel tried not to pass away right then and there. “I think you might fit right in.”

“I work nights, unfortunately,” Mel said, indicating the bar with a wide sweep of her arms.

“Did I say ‘dinner party’? I meant brunch.” Bebe didn’t even bother hiding her cat-with-the-cream smile. “Are you free next Sunday at one?”

Mel regarded her for a moment. She really was something else. “I could be,” she hedged.

“You should be. Picture it. Frittatas. Fresh biscuits. More mimosas than you can shake a stick at.” She put a fingertip to her chin. “Or would it offend your professional sensibilities to drink one of my lowly concoctions?”

“Mimosas don’t offend me,” Mel said, “as long as they’re done right.”

Bebe made a perfect O with her red lips. “You’ll have to let me in on all the secrets of the trade. You know, so I don’t offend you. Here.” She dug into her purse and retrieved a small white card. “You can text me at this number.”

Mel took the business card from where it was slotted between her fingers. A quick glance told her that Bebe’s full name was Blair B. Murray, and she was an attorney at Kipling and Beech, LLP. When had she last gotten someone’s phone number? It was so outmoded, but then again, Bebe had said she was old-fashioned. Mel shook her head, already knowing she was hooked.

“All right,” she said, feeling the thrill of possibility in her belly. She slipped the card into her pocket. It felt heavier than any ring could. “Looking forward to it.”

“Same here.” Bebe smiled, the most genuine smile Mel had ever seen inside Terror & Virtue. Even in the artful shadows, it looked bright as day.

As Mel was about to stir Bebe’s fresh drink, a new figure came into view at the corner of her eye. Whoever it was sat right next to Bebe, hovering just inside her personal space. The run-in with Haircut had Mel on edge, so she wanted to make sure this newcomer wasn’t going to bother Bebe.

She barely got a glimpse—loose copper curls, elfin features, a creamy cable-knit sweater that reminded Mel of a lighthouse keeper from 1887—before Bebe flung herself into the person’s arms.

“Darling!” Bebe kissed that unsmiling mouth. “You made it.” She turned to Mel with breathless delight. “Mel, this is my wife, Kade. They drink gin. Could you mix up something for them?”

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Library Journal Reviews

Mixologist Mel is working her normal shift at the bar when a gorgeous stranger, Bebe, walks in and flirts outrageously with her. Mel thinks she's gotten the wrong idea when Bebe then introduces her to her husband, Kade. Confused but intrigued, Mel decides to show up for a dinner party at their home, where she learns that Bebe and Kade are in an open, polyamorous relationship. After some negotiations, commitment-phobe Mel agrees to casually date Bebe. But Mel soon begins to fall head over heels for Bebe and struggles to figure out how to handle her blossoming feelings. When Mel and Kade find themselves stranded alone together in a cabin during a severe winter storm, they explore their unexpected attraction and end up forging a strong connection. Now they must navigate a relationship where all three are in love with each other. This unconventional arrangement is not only more complex but also more fulfilling than they'd imagined. VERDICT Told in three parts and featuring a wide spectrum of LGBTQIA+ characters, including a strong nonbinary love interest, Alexander's (Second Chances in New Port Stephen) fresh take on the genre is a must-buy for any romance collection.—Migdalia Jimenez

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