Out of Bounds – Book 1
Julie Hendricks fought the urge to cover her ears as she stepped inside the doorway to Out of Bounds, her friend Hal’s bar and grill. It was her first night out in over three years, and she’d forgotten the level of noise associated with a bar, especially on a Saturday when the locals’ two favorite teams were dueling it out on a football field.
Even though she’d lived in southeast Alabama all her life, Julie had yet to figure out what was so appealing about a group of men battering into each other all in the name of sport. Her father and brothers faithfully dressed in their red T-shirts and hollered “Roll Tide” every Saturday while Julie just tried her best to steer clear of the television. Lord help you if you happened to block their view.
Julie stepped farther into the bar and glanced around at the décor. It had not changed much since the last time she had been there. The wooden walls of the bar were still covered with sports memorabilia and the dollar bills that Hal’s patrons occasionally autographed and tacked alongside the jersey bearing the number of their favorite player.
Julie’s dollar was there somewhere, placed beside the jersey of Wayne Gretzky. Not because of any fondness for the hockey player, but because it had been the only spot her petite height allowed her to reach.
The modest heels of Julie’s black strappy sandals clicked on the pine flooring as she headed for the bar’s counter. She stepped up to a pretty brunette waitress who was dressed in a tight black T-shirt with Hal’s logo emblazoned across the front. “Excuse me. Can you tell me where I can find Hal?”
The words barely left her mouth before she heard a booming voice behind her.
“Julie! Babe, I didn’t know you were coming tonight!”
She caught only a glimpse of Hal before she was gathered into a bear hug, which gave new meaning to the word breathtaking.
“Hal,” she choked out and pounded on his back to get his attention. “I can’t breathe!”
Hal released her, suddenly seeming ill at ease in his six-foot body. In college, Hal had been a linebacker, and even though he’d lost most of his weight, he was still a large guy. Her oversized teddy bear, she liked to call him.
They’d been friends since kindergarten, although with her demanding job she’d not been able to see him lately as much as she’d liked. Today marked the beginning of a week-long vacation, and she planned on rectifying her absence immediately.
“What are you doing here, Julie?” Hal’s light blue eyes sparkled in the fluorescent lighting above his head.
She smiled at him, happy to see him after all this time. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, you certainly did.” Hal shook his head in amazement. “I can’t believe you finally came.”
“I missed you. Plus I’m on vacation this week, and I wanted to celebrate.”
“You certainly came to the right place.” Hal draped an arm over her shoulder and pulled her in close for another hug.
Once he let her go, Julie glanced around the crowded bar. Her eyes lingered on several unfamiliar faces. “Business seems to be booming.”
Hal gave a proud smile, one that made him look like an overgrown boy. “I can’t complain. Since I’ve expanded, business has nearly tripled.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Expanded? Wow! When did all this happen?”
Hal reached for her hand and tugged her forward. “Last summer. Come on. I’ll show you.”
In heels, keeping up with Hal’s pace was next to impossible. Julie puffed as she tugged on his hand. “Hal! Slow down.”
He gave her another of his sheepish grins. “I’m sorry, Jules. I keep forgetting you have short legs.”
Hal dodged her halfhearted punch and pushed open a swinging door, motioning her inside. “After you, Shorty.”
She turned up her nose and sniffed. “I prefer the term vertically challenged, thank you very much.”
Julie ducked inside the room and let out a low whistle. “Ooh, this is nice.”
The retro couches and colorful cushions would please even the most discerning eye. It was a complete turnaround from the sports bar atmosphere out front.
“What goes on back here?”
Hal put a hand on her back and steered her toward the front of the room. “Allow me to show you what’s behind the wizard’s curtain.”
Julie followed him onto a raised dais at the front of the room, where a large collection of electronic equipment rested on a low table. Hal flipped a couple of switches and picked up a remote, which he used to turn on a monitor hanging over their heads. He hit a button on something resembling a CD player, and the opening bars of Prince’s “Purple Rain” began playing.
Julie laughed when Hal tossed her a microphone. “Forget it, Hal. I don’t do karaoke.”
Hal waggled his eyebrows and pantomimed into his own mic. “Come on, Julie. It’s fun. You should try it.”
She was a horrible singer, as Hal well knew. There was no way she was singing, even without an audience. She handed the mic back to him. “Maybe later.”
Julie stepped off the dais and wandered the room, idly straightening the cushions and colorful ashtrays that Hal had gathered. “Did you do all this yourself?”
Hal turned down the volume on the stereo and jumped to the floor in a nimble motion that seemed at odds with his size. “I had a little help. A buddy of mine picked out the decorations, and he volunteered to run the show until I get things settled.”
“Hmm…” Julie said with a knowing glance back at Hal. “I see.”
Hal frowned, his shaggy brows meeting together in the center of his forehead. “What do you see?”
Julie pushed aside a fuzzy, pink heart pillow and sat down on an unbelievably comfortable sofa. The cushions were soft as she snuggled deeper. “A buddy who enjoys interior designing and volunteers to work for you? Sounds a little homoerotic to me.”
Hal threw back his head and laughed loudly enough to shake the walls. He swiped the back of his hand over his eyes to wipe away the tears that had gathered at the corners. “I can promise you beyond the shadow of a doubt Sin isn’t gay.”
Julie crossed her legs and fought to keep a straight face. “Sin? His name is Sin?” She stretched her arms along the back of the couch and drummed her pink-tipped fingernails along the edge. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
Hal chuckled again. “It’s a nickname. His family came from Wales and saddled him with some god-awful sounding name, Taliesin.”
“Taliesin. Hmmm … sounds familiar. I’ve heard that name before.”
“You’re thinking of world lit, I bet. Taliesin was a famous Welsh bard who was rumored to have been a deity.”
Julie cocked her head to the side and pondered Hal’s statement. “You may be right. How do you remember world lit anyway? Didn’t you sleep through most of it?”
Hal grinned and tapped his forehead. “I know more than I let on, Jules.”
“I always knew the heart of a nerd lurked underneath that brash exterior.” Julie brushed at the pink fuzz now clinging to her skirt. She plucked off a stubborn piece of lint and tossed it aside. “But let me get this straight. You have a Welsh friend who enjoys decorating and singing, goes by the name Sin, and you don’t think he’s gay? How much more evidence do you need, Hal?”
“Perhaps me in bed with another man?” A deep voice questioned from the doorway.
Julie stiffened in alarm. “He is behind me, isn’t he?” she mouthed to Hal.
As Hal dramatically coughed and pounded his chest, Julie knew she’d put her foot in her mouth. Wincing in embarrassment, she swiveled her head toward the doorway and blinked twice.
Good Lord! That was Sin, Hal’s decorator friend?