“Thanks for comin’ in,” Levi pointed to the chair in front of the desk he was sat behind. “Dallas, you wanna shout Stone and tell him Holden is here.”
Dallas nodded and left wordlessly. My stomach did a queasy roll. The Smith brothers were notorious in these parts, all as big and as intimidating as each other. The man opposite me was the oldest and I’d not really had much to do with him. Dallas was the closest to my age and the one I knew from school. He was the youngest of them all, not that he had any less of a reputation for not tolerating any bullshit, than his older brothers.
It had been a suprize to everyone when they’d sold their lucrative ranch to buy the bar three years back after their old man had died. The one and only bar in town had a dreadful reputation and many steered clear unless they wanted to get drunk and find someone to fight with. The Smith brothers had changed that through hard work and showing those who wanted to fight what it was like to come up against five brothers built like wrestlers. They were all as big as each other, and not men anyone messed with unless they wanted to be minus a few teeth.
Dallas seemed to be the most easy going of the bunch. The second youngest was Fox and he was mute. I’d often wondered how he coped in a bar when he couldn’t actually talk to customers. Also how did he communicate with staff? I’d looked up an online course for American sign language just in case I managed to get the job.
Settling in the chair, it creaked under my weight as I glanced about the well-organized office.
Levi settled back in his seat, a poker expression in place, I’d seen a time or two before, keeping all his thoughts to himself. “I need to ask before we start, do you have an issue with what happened with Ash? I know folks are talkin’ ‘bout what happened and not all of it is truth.”
Ash had gone to jail for putting a guy in a coma after he’d attacked Ash’s girlfriend Alora. The town gossips had been chawing over it for months. The man had been given a ten year sentence and it was why I was now sat opposite Levi getting ready to be interviewed to fill in the vacancy the brothers now had.
I shifted forward and met his gaze head on. “If the tables were reversed I don’t suspect I’d have walked away from the shithead after what I hear he did to Alora.”
The nod Levi gave was measured. “He did try to walk away, only the dude wasn’t for listenin’. It’s hot news and will probably bring in some troublemakers, or more than we already deal with. It’s taken two solid years of hard work to get folks to see the bar in a different light.” He rubbed at his chin. “This will probably set us back. I’m bein’ honest you’re the third person we’ve interviewed Holden. Some folks just aren’t interested in more than snoopin’ in our business. Dallas has put in a good word for you. He seems to think you won’t run at the sight of trouble or be interested in fuelin’ gossip. Is he right?”
“I ain’t never been a gossip and I don’t plan on startin’ now. I have my friends backs if that’s what you’re meanin’. I work hard for those who are honest and up front with me and treat me with respect.” Something that hadn’t happened with my current employer, who also happened to be my ex’s father.
He blamed me for Lissa being a flake, the guy wore rose tinted glasses when it came to his daughter. And that wasn’t going to change and neither was me being his doormat if I didn’t leave before I ended up in a similar position as Ash wanting to beat the guys brains out for treating me like I was something he’d trod in. I’d become a champion on hiding my thoughts and feelings, but there was only so much a man could take and I’d reached my limit.
Only thing was when Lissa had skipped, I’d been the one to take on the responsibilities for our daughter. It was why I’d kept my mouth shut, I needed a job as rearing a child didn’t come cheap. This job working in Smith’s Bar was hopefully going to change things for me, for Coco my baby girl.
There was heavy footfall before a gruff voice spoke. “Sorry I got caught up.” Stone sidestepped around the desk and perched his ass on the arm of Levi’s seat. He looked me up and down, his eyes narrowing. “You okay with crackin’ heads together?”
“Fucksake.” Levi groaned and buried his head in his hands. “Why did god give me all brothers!”
Stone thumped Levi on the shoulder and my lips twitched at their antics. “What? It’s gonna happen, you know it, I know it.” Stone pointed his thumb in my direction. “He needs to know it too if he’s serious ‘bout workin’ here.”
“I’ve cracked a few heads together in the past and I’m not adverse to doin’ it again. But I’ll be truthful. I’ve a daughter and I can’t afford to get into any hot water with the law. She’s all I got.”
Levi frowned. “How are the shifts gonna work for you?”
This was something I’d been prepared for. My Ma was dead and my father wasn’t up to caring for Coco who was too much of a handful at the best of times. I’d no other family locally, if I discounted Lissa’s parents who weren’t all that helpful unless it was to benefit them. I’d no intention of relying on them, none. With that in mind I’d friended a couple of the moms who Coco was friends with their children. They’d thankfully offered to help out, if I could reciprocate as one Mom worked in the daytime and the other in the afternoons. They needed drop off and pick up’s for their girls and I’d volunteered. “I’ve a couple of mom’s I’m helpin’ out who are willing to cover with my shifts as long as I know when they are in advance.”
Stone’s lips moved into the smallest of smiles. “That won’t be an issue ‘casue Levi is anal.”
“Organized is what I am. And if I weren’t we wouldn’t have a business.” Levi said, the exasperation clear to hear as he turned his attention back to me. “Holden, you got any experience in bar work?”
This was the bit I’d dreaded. I’d gone straight from school to working for Lissa’s father on the ranch. “No, but I’m a fast learner and have a strong back.”
“We didn’t have any experience either until we bought this place. You work at Neal’s Ranch,” Levi muttered as he glanced down at his desk and what I assumed was my application form.
“Yeah, worked there since I left school. I’ll be honest, I thought that’s where I’d stay. Things…have changed.”
“Does old man Neal blame you for his daughter doin’ a runner?” Levi questioned and I didn’t so much as show a flicker of anger at how he was poking his nose in my business.
There was little in Everdale that was secret and I’d expected some curiosity after mentioning Coco. “You could say that. Lissa will never do any wrong in her Father’s eyes. I suppose he thought she’d sow her wild oats and come back. It’s been two years and I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact she ain’t interested in me or our daughter. Her father hasn’t quite got there.” I shrugged off the old hurt I’d laid to rest along with the hopes that she’d see sense. See that her daughter needed her.
Stone got up and gave me a look of pity I didn’t want or need. “That’s tough. When can you start?”
Levi, if he was annoyed at Stone for offering me the job like that, he didn’t show it.
“I’ve no contract with the Neal Ranch, so when do you need me?”
Levi grinned. “You can start now. See how you like it. Then there won’t be any surprizes that have you runnin’ for the hills.”
I chuckled. “I won’t be runnin’ for the hills. Let me check with Nicky that she’d happy to keep Coco, and I’m all yours.” After a quick call and assurance that all was good with Nicky keeping Coco overnight, I tucked my phone away.
“All sorted?” Stone asked as he strode around the desk and held out his hand. I nodded and took his hand. “Welcome to Smith’s Bar.”
I got up, continuing to shake Stone’s hand. His grip firm. Although Stone was tall, I was taller by an inch or two. His grin widened as he let go of my hand. “Fuck, I didn’t think there was anyone taller than me.”
“There ain’t much between us.”
He slapped me on the shoulder. “You’ll fit right in.” He glanced at Levi. “I’ll show him the ropes while you do,” he waved his hand in the air,” whatever it is you do.”
There were curses as we left the office and Stone started to talk me through the routine of the bar.
Dallas took a moment to shout, “Welcome to madness,” then continued serving a customer, I recognized. Binks was well known in town for the fights he had with his old lady and that he liked a drink.
There wasn’t much time to pay attention to the coming’s and going’s as Stone led me through the bar routine. An hour later I stood behind the bar feeling more than a little bemused. Stone, who I thought would be impatient, was actually a good teacher. He’d also gotten Levi to write down what was expected daily, depending on the time of when the shift started. They worked several different start times. One that started at nine to set up the bar and would give me time to drop the girls to school, that one also finished at five so I’d have to get someone to pick up Coco. There was one that started at lunch time and went through to early evening. Then there was the late afternoon one that would allow me to collect Coco, but I’d need someone to sit with her until I got home after closing time. The week was mix of all of them, with split days off. These appeared to be one in the week and one on the weekend that would work. Especially as Stone had been correct, Levi was anal and had the rota planned two months in advance. Which I was now slotted into.
By the third hour I was enjoying myself, though the attention I was getting from the females was a little awkward. I’d only ever dated Lissa. We’d met in high school and we’d kind of clicked. It wasn’t any great romance, and I’d often wondered if that was why she’d been able to up sticks and leave without so much as a backward glance in our direction.
“Oh look fresh meat to play with,” came a sultry voice, one I’d have recognized anywhere.
Dallas laughed at Hunter’s antics. “Behave, you don’t get to scare off the new help that’s Stone’s job.”
Stone grunted as he passed by us, his expression sour. “Fuck off.”
Dallas chuckled and ignored Stone to lean on the bar, feeling an edge of desperation I didn’t like, I avoided looking at Hunter knowing he’d be wearing the same big ass grin he always wore.
A woman walked to the bar and lifted her hand and I breathed out a sigh of relief at the genuine reason to walk off. Hunter seemed to be in a perpetual state of happy. The guy was annoyingly irritating. Sometimes, it was like he knew all my damn secrets the way he looked at me. Only there was no way he could, we weren’t friends.
He was older and the way he was, I’d always felt scruffy and awkward around him. I’d been the high school jock, there wasn’t a sport I wasn’t good at. Hunter wasn’t that, he’d been more interested in his books. Far as I could see though, he wasn’t your typical nerd. He’d gone off to college straight out of high school having aced his way through school.
Whereas me, I’d never been that interested in school, another reason why we’d never likely ever be friends. I wasn’t a brainiac or had a family who looked like a damn cheesy Hallmark movie, all shiny and beautifully polished.
Did he like to work out? My gaze drifted from the woman I was serving back to Hunter who was lounging against the bar, the smile beaming directly at a cute red head stood next to him. A flare of anger came from nowhere when the woman ran her hand down Hunter’s arm.
When it registered I was grinding my teeth, I frowned and returned my attention to the blonde I was serving, tuning back into her flirty comments. When she walked back of to her friend after giving me an offer that heated my face, I was stared at man continuing to lean on the bar shooting the breeze with Dallas.
A part of me wanted to walk over and join the conversation, though my feet wouldn’t make the move. I wasn’t awkward around folks with one exception…Hunter.
Was Hunter a regular?
It wasn’t the kind of place I’d have associated him with. He always looked the type to go to some trendy wine bar. Not that there was one in the town. The town of Farley was the closest place to have such a thing. The last time I’d had a date, that’s where she’d wanted to go. It had been torture and we’d not gone out again. I shuddered at the way she’d come on to me in the cab of my truck. I was so out of practice with dating, I couldn’t find my moves. After than I’d avoided dating.
Why was I even thinking about this?
One look at Hunter, and the sinking feeling I’d come to associate with him developed in the pit of my stomach. The nerves fluttered madly, and for the first time since I’d stepped behind the bar, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was wrong with me.
Levi appeared from the back office. “Holden, you got a sec to sign the paperwork to make it official?”
I found my gaze meeting Hunter’s, a glint in his eyes stirred something deep in my chest I couldn’t name. He gave me a saucy wink and I looked away and inhaled a deep, shaky breath. My fists clenched at my sides at the urge to go and punch Hunter, instead I worked to control the surge of unexpected temper.
After another deep breath, I worked to put a smile on my face. “Yep. I’m ready, lead on.” And I was, Coco was depending on me and she was all that mattered.