I smiled too. I couldn’t help it. “That’s awesome. I bet you’re glad to have him back. So they both own the bar? Just them?”
“Yeah. When Frank got hurt, he changed his major to business management and finance. He keeps the books for the business. He’s really smart.”
“And you do all the marketing. What does Ryan do?”
A throaty laugh escaped as Nick shook his head. “Ryan, shit, where do I start? Ryan’s the biggest flirt I’ve ever met in my life. You think I’m good with girls? Ryan’s a god.”
“I can’t even imagine that.” I smiled as I tried to picture an even more charming guy than Nick.
“It’s true. The ladies can’t get enough of him. Anyway, he’s twenty-nine. He went to school down in San Diego and fell into bartending one night, filling in as a favor for a friend. He loved it so much, he never stopped. He told me once that he made more money in tips that night than he’d made in a month at his regular job.”
“No way,” I said, my tone incredulous.
“Honest. But that’s not why he does it. He truly loves it. He makes the most incredible drinks you’ve ever tasted. They’re a fucking art form. Ryan’s more of a mixologist, you know? I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. The time it takes to make a drink, the way he uses herbs and citrus to assault your senses before the alcohol ever hits your tongue. Wait until you try one, Jess. It’ll change your life.”
I tried not to choke on my excitement, but failed. Words escaped me as I pictured hanging out with Nick and his brothers.
“Are either of them married?” It was a fair question, I thought, but Nick just shook his head with a slight grin.
“Frank has a girlfriend who moved out here from Arizona with him, but none of us think he’s really happy. It sucks. And Ryan couldn’t keep a girl if he tried. He’s constantly dating, and constantly single.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” I said, nudging Nick’s shoulder with mine.
“Hey, it’s not my fault that I can’t meet the right girl.”
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. “That’s what you’re looking for? The right girl?”
He let out a quick laugh. “I’m just tired of dating all the wrong ones.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, and to stop myself from reading into it, I turned the subject back to Nick’s career. “I don’t mean to keep going back to this, but they both got to choose their career, but yours got chosen for you? It doesn’t seem fair.” I didn’t mean to continue poking at it, hitting a nerve, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
“Frank and Ryan weren’t raised the way I was. The childhood they talk about isn’t something I can even relate to. It’s so different from mine. The dad they talk about doesn’t seem anything like the dad I grew up with. It’s almost like they’re two completely different people.”
“Who got the better version?” My question came out without a second thought.
“I don’t know, to be honest. All I do know is that if there’s one person on Earth that I don’t go up against or say no to, it’s my old man. I don’t like to disappoint him, but I feel like it’s all I ever do.” He finished off his can of soda as I filed away that bit of information somewhere between my heart and my head.
“I’m sure that’s not true. How could he be disappointed in you?”
Nick shrugged but didn’t respond, and I stifled my own disappointment that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with me.
“Maybe you’ll learn more from working with him. Maybe he can teach you everything you need to know, and it will make you better when you do go to the bar.” I chewed on my bottom lip, hoping Nick wouldn’t think my positive spin was stupid.
His head jerked up and a smirk appeared. “I like the way you see things,” he said as he pulled something out of his pocket, rubbing his thumb across it before he tucked it away again.
“What was that?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was half crazy. “What?”
“What’s in your pocket?”
“Oh.” He reached in, pulled it out, and placed it in my hand—an old five-dollar poker chip from a Vegas hotel that didn’t exist anymore. “It’s sort of my lucky charm. My grandfather gave it to me before he passed away. Told me he used to always carry it with him, and I just started doing the same thing.”
“That’s sweet,” I said, loving the sentimental side of Nick.
“My grandpa met my grandma in Vegas, at a poker table at this hotel. That’s why he saved this chip. Said it brought him the best luck he could have ever hoped for.”
“Your grandma?” The sweet story warmed my heart and made me smile.
“So now you carry it?”
“I always thought it was cool.”
“It is cool,” I said, handing him back the chip before reaching for my cell phone.
“I always thought I could make it into a necklace or something, but that’s probably a dumb idea.”
I shrugged, trying to imagine Nick wearing a necklace with a giant poker chip on it, and laughed.
“To be honest, I can’t really picture it, but I get what you’re saying.” Glancing at my phone, I noted the time and remembered how far away from my classrooms we were. “Shoot. I have to go or I’m gonna be late.”
Nick stood up and extended his hand to me. I took it, allowing him to pull me up as I tugged at the bottom of my shorts.
“I’ll walk you,” he said.
“You don’t have to.” I tried to resist, but secretly hoped he still would.
“I know I don’t have to, Jess. I want to.”
Best. Answer. Ever.
When we finally arrived at my building, ten minutes before class started, I was thankful that Nick had walked with me. I would never have found it on my own on time.
“Thanks for lunch.” I clutched my bag against my side, not knowing what to do with my hands.
Nick leaned in to hug me and kissed my cheek. “It was my pleasure. Really.” He gave my arm a little squeeze, then said, “We’re having a small party at the house tomorrow. Come. And bring Rachel.”
“Rachel?” I said with surprise. “Like my roommate, Rachel?”