An excerpt from
As Bad As Can Be

Book #2 of Under the Covers

ISBN 0-373-79090-2
Harlequin Blaze
May 2003


Mallory stood by the door, scanning the crowd for trouble out of habit. Some nights, the torqued up, liquored up patrons could turn on one another like snapping dogs -- a possibility that justified having a second bouncer -- but tonight they were content to be entranced by the dancer/bartenders, enticed enough to buy them drinks, tantalized enough to make passes that never succeeded. The girls knew the drill: flirt but don't fall. Every guy who walked through the door, of course, assumed that he'd be the exception, and so they were happy to stand in line to get in, just for the chance of seeing and talking to the dancers. It was the source of Bad Reputation's recent success.

Mallory took another glance across the room, and in the sea of faces, one leapt out at her. He wasn't entranced -- far from it. If anything, he looked bored. He didn't nod his head to the music, but sat against the wall with a kind of stillness, the dim lighting shadowing his deep set eyes. The beginnings of a beard darkened his jaw and encircled his mouth. And it was a beautiful mouth, she couldn't help noticing even from this distance.

At the bar, the noise of the crowd spiked as Kayla and Belinda danced together. It was then that she saw it.

A smirk. A head shake. A faintly supercilious look that spread across his face as he took in the scene.

Irritation flashed through her. On its heels came her innate practicality -- a bored guy wasn't going to stick around and buy drinks, and he sure wasn't going to recommend the place to friends. Part of the path to success was sending everyone out happy and ready to return. Maybe she needed to do something about him.

Just then, he turned and looked at her. The eye contact shivered through her veins, stopping her dead. Those eyes pulled at her in a way that made everything recede until she was only conscious of them and of the sudden thud of her heartbeat in her ears.
Then someone at the bar rang the cow bell signifying a tequila shot and she snapped out of it. Magic eyes or no, he was just another customer, and the thing to do with customers was jolly them into spending money. She hooked a circular tray from behind the bar and walked toward him.

The closer she drew, the more clearly she could see his face, the black brows and the slashes of the high cheekbones that gave him something of the artist-in-a-garret look, an impression enhanced by the white poet's shirt he wore. His hair appeared disordered, as though he raked his hands through it regularly. But it was his mouth that drew her, full and sculpted with equal parts humor and anticipation hovering around the corners.

She gave her head an impatient shake. This wasn't about getting distracted by a pretty face, it was about turning a wall sitter into a paying customer. It was time to pull out the charm, blast him with sex. He'd be buying drinks before he knew what hit him. Three, she decided, looking at him under her lashes. He'd buy at least three before he walked out.

Mallory stopped and fixed him with a sultry smile. "Welcome to Bad Reputation, sugar. What's your pleasure?"

* * * * * * * *

Shay blinked. She was his pleasure, if he was honest, though he had a pretty good idea that she wouldn't be all that impressed with that response. He'd watched her move across the room in a lithe, flowing walk that managed to be far more provocative than any hip sway might be. Why she'd decided to come his way, he wasn't sure, but he was certainly interested in finding out. Up close, she was everything the glance from afar had promised and more. In another century, she would have had men dueling over that aristocratic beauty, vying to tease a smile from that wide, mobile mouth with its full lower lip.

One slim brow arched as she looked down at him. "I get the impression from the way you were looking that we're not doing a very good job entertaining you."

Shay smiled. "Quite the contrary. I'm very entertained right now. And I'll take a beer when you get a chance. You have Guinness?"

"No Guinness, at least not yet. We've got Bud, Bud Light, Miller, and Heineken."

"Heineken, then," Shay said. She was in a whole different class from the rest of the bartenders in the place. Whoever had hired her had known what they were doing.

She leaned over to collect bottles from the shelf behind him, setting them on the tray. "Is this your first time at Bad Reputation?"

Shay nodded, watching her. She had the kind of face that sucked a man in, that made it impossible to look away, because the minute you did, you started wondering if anyone could really be that beautiful. "Just stopped by to see if what I've heard was true." Not just beauty, he thought. Sex. Something in the curve of her lips and the tilt of those dark eyes suggested abandonment, disregard for rules. Come with me, they said, and I'll show you things you've never even thought of.

"And what had you heard?" The brunette propped her tray on the shelf and looked at him under her lashes.

His mouth curved. "Something about half-naked women dancing on the bar."

"Well, you've got to admit, they're on the bar and they're dancing." She glanced over her shoulder to where the blonde was whipping her hair to the music.

"Like college girls having a wild night."

"You're calling us girls?" She smiled, but her eyes narrowed a trifle in warning.

"Not you, darlin'." He ran his gaze from her long, smooth legs to the sleek curve of hip and waist, to the dark hair tumbling down her back, and up to that fabulous face. "You're a whole different class from girls."

A little buzz went through Mallory at his look, and she gave herself a mental shake. She might be giving the appearance of flirting, but she was supposed to be working a customer. It definitely didn't do to get caught up in it. "And here I thought I'd heard about every line out there."

"I didn't intend it as a line." His teeth gleamed, and something of the pirate came out in him then. "Did you want it to be?"

For the first time in years, she found herself at a loss for words. To buy time, she picked up her tray. "Let me go get you that beer," she said, and turned for the bar.

It was something worth thinking about, that he'd thrown her off her stride. It wasn't just the good looks -- she'd had plenty of handsome men come on to her. There was something about him, though, some command of his surroundings that made him far more compelling than the usual pretty face. To allow her system time to settle, she stopped for a few more orders on her way in.
When she returned with his beer, he still sat loose and relaxed, observing his surroundings with an almost purposeful air.

"Miss me?" she asked teasingly.

"Every second was an eternity," he said dryly.

Mallory laughed. "I'll bet."

"Hear any good lines on the way back?"

Her pulse jumped. She set a napkin down on the little shelf and placed the beer on top. "I'm at work, sugar. We don't date customers." On the other hand, she was beginning to wonder if it wasn't time to reevaluate that policy. She stared at his mouth wondering how it tasted.

"So you're allowed to tease but not to close on the deal?" he asked in amusement, putting the mouth of the bottle to his lips to take a drink. "You ought to at least come up with a way to let your customers down easy, encourage them a little so you get a lasting draw."

Mallory raised a brow. "And are you looking for encouragement? That'll be three dollars, by the way."

"I'm probably not your target clientele, but yeah," he said, pulling out his wallet.

It was a challenge. Mallory gave him a smoky look. "So you don't think I can provide a lasting draw?" She was rewarded when his eyes darkened.

"I get the feeling you can pretty much do anything you want to do," he said, holding her gaze until she felt something in her begin to heat and soften. "Then again, I haven't seen you up on the bar. All I've seen are some harmless Britney Spears wannabes."

"Oh, you haven't seen anything like me." The words were a challenge, the tone a promise.

He looked at her. "You're right. I haven't. For you, I'd make an exception and stay. That's why you should polish up your shut down line. Teasing is a tricky business. Sometimes people expect you to finish what you start." He took another drink.

"I never start anything I'm not prepared to finish," she said coolly.

He tipped his head to one side and eyed her. "Now, that's a thought that'll keep me awake tonight."

"On the other hand, flirting is just flirting. It doesn't mean I'm starting anything."

"That's a pity."

Her lips twitched. "And it doesn't mean I'm not. You'll just have to buy another beer and see how well I follow policy. Or buy two," she said, remembering her promise to herself.

"And then do I get to see you dance?"

"I don't dance," she said automatically.

He finished his beer and set it down on her tray. "Can't or won't?"


"Really? You don't strike me as the type who would be afraid to be up in front of a crowd."

"I'm not afraid."

"Of course not."

"Get that idea out of your head."

"I don't doubt you," he said agreeably. His smile grew wider.

Was that condescension she saw? "I should take care of the other customers," she said at last. "Are you in for another beer?"

"Sure." He eyed her assessingly. "I figure I'll stick around to see if you get up there. Since you're not scared."

Recklessness snatched at her control, but she held on. Mallory turned without a word and went back behind the bar. Normally, the routine of drawing beers and pouring drinks soothed her, but not tonight. She wanted to wipe the smirk off his face. He thought he knew something about her from a five minute conversation? He was dead wrong.

The tinny bang of three guitar notes heralded the start of INXS's "You're One of My Kind" on the juke box. The monster groove bass line begged her to move, and without thinking about it she found herself up on the bar.

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