Some people might think working as a bartender in a small-town bar would give me the inside track on all the gossip that could be found in a town the size of Tulip, Texas.
Those people would be wrong, though. As it turns out, booze does not loosen lips nearly as effectively as a stare-down from a blue-haired old lady. That’s right — all the gossip was carefully released in a steady trickle by a group of three old women ranging in age from seventy-something to the high end of eighty.
At twenty-five, I didn’t qualify for their inner circle, never mind that I was an outsider who’d only been a resident of Tulip for the past seven months. Who knew how long it would take before I became a local, not that I’d planned to stick around that long.
It was late afternoon and the Black Thumb was mostly empty, now that the lunch rush was over. But Janey Matheson, photographer extraordinaire, held court at one of the booths that split the restaurant seating area from the pool tables, dartboards, and foosball tables. And since the daytime waitresses had all left after counting their tips, it was up to me to make sure her crowd received their pitcher of margaritas and round of tequila shots.
“Here we go, ladies,” I announced, unloading my tray onto the table.
“Thanks, Nina.” Janey flashed a bright smile, her perky ponytail bouncing just from the force of her words. “Hey, would you sign up to be part of a bachelor and bachelorette auction? It’s for a good cause.”
I frowned back at her cheerful face. As nice as the people in Tulip were, they were also manipulative as hell. One kind word, and you were signed up to judge a meatloaf cooking contest and a senior beauty pageant.
“Hell, no. Guys can be weird and creepy and totally pervy. Best to put the control and the bidding in the hands of women.”
She beamed another smile my way, dimples winking from both cheeks, giving her a girl-next-door appeal I was sure the men of Tulip appreciated. “You are a genius, Nina. An absolute genius.”
I mean, I thought so but, big surprise, so did Janey. “You said bartender wrong,” I deadpanned, which for some reason made all the women at the table erupt in laughter. “Besides, I’m more of a look-but-don’t-touch kind of girl when it comes to men.”
Janey’s raven brows rose in surprise. “So, you’re… celibate?” She gasped, as though the idea was so far-fetched that she just couldn’t believe it.
“Since I moved here, yeah. And I’m fine with that.”
Honestly, I was. Sure, men had their purpose, but so far I hadn’t found one worth keeping, and until I did, celibacy was fine with me. “Batteries can do wonders for a girl’s disposition.”
She tapped her chin, her gaze thoughtful. “You do make a valid point, but men are just so big and strong and… delicious.” As Janey seemed lost in her own thoughts, I started to wonder if there was anyone in particular who put that wistful look on her face. “Oh. My. God. You really are a genius, Nina!”
I let that compliment sink in, because I didn’t get them all that often from anyone other than myself. “You’re going to sell vibrators, instead of the men of Tulip?”
For the past three months, everyone in town over the age of fifteen had been trying to come up with the perfect fundraiser to repair the town center’s statue-fountain-garden structure, which featured the town founder Tulip Worthington.
“No, we’re going to do a calendar. A big ol’ beefcake calendar, showing off the men of Tulip.”
I shrugged. “I’d buy one.” As the saying went, they grew ’em big down in Texas and the men here seemed to be especially big, even for Texas.
“Oh, this is good. So good,” Janey muttered to herself, whipping out a red, white, and blue notebook with a cover that looked like a pair of distressed jeans. After a minute or two of furious writing, she was on her feet and rushing out the door.
I turned to the rest of the women and grinned. “Let me know if you ladies need anything else.”
“Coming right up.” The thing I loved most about Texas was how friendly and open everyone was. Sure, I was still an outsider, but the people here said ‘please’ and ‘thanks’ automatically, never making me feel like the service worker I was.
The doors flew open and Janey breezed back in, smacking a couple twenty-dollar bills on the bar with a wide smile. “Sorry, and thanks.” Then, she was gone again, leaving the Black Thumb just a little quieter and dimmer than before.
My three occupied tables all had drinks while they waited for their late lunch orders to arrive. I slid behind the bar and busied myself with the boring part of my job – wiping down the counters, restocking empty bottles of booze, and checking the levels on the kegs.
The last task I needed to finish before my shift ended was cutting more garnish for the cocktails the good people of Tulip rarely ordered. But I liked working at the Black Thumb and I liked my boss, Buddy, even if he was a bit crusty and grouchy sometimes. So, I did all the tasks assigned to me without complaining.
“Hey, Nina, isn’t your shift over already?” Buddy pushed through the swinging door off the side of the bar, leading with his gut – the result of years of enjoying too many beers and too much barbecue.
Nodding, I glanced at my watch, even though I already knew the time. “Well, my bear of a boss insists I slice these lemons as thinly as possible, so he can save some cash.” I winked and Buddy doubled over with laughter, clutching his big belly until he was red in the face.
“A man don’t get rich giving away stuff for free.”
“Not even a drop of lemon juice?”
“Especially the little things. They want a real slice of lemon, they can order something other than a beer.” It was a familiar refrain, Buddy complaining that his customers preferred cheap beer to the pricey beverages he offered. “Anyway, I didn’t come out here to discuss my business strategy with you, missy.”
I laughed, loving the way Buddy sometimes sounded like a librarian from the fifties. “Okay. Want to tell me why you came out, then?”
A smile that looked suspiciously like trouble crossed his face. “To remind you that you’re off this weekend. Heard you got roped into helping with the Tulip’s Troops annual camping trip.”
Yeah, I had, and roped was exactly the right word to use. It had been a sneak attack from the one and only friend I’d made during my time in town, and somehow, I’d volunteered for the task of spending the weekend with a bunch of little girls.
“I did, and I didn’t forget.” I had hoped one of the attractive-but-unreliable waitresses Buddy favored would call off, but it appeared luck was not on my side.
“I’m still trying to figure out how you got them to overlook that ring in your nose and the ink on your arm,” he said with a shake of his head in the direction of the colorful sleeve of tattoos traveling up my right arm.
It was a mystery to me, too. “I wish they would fear me, just enough that I stopped getting roped into these things.”
Not that I minded much, but it always seemed to highlight my status as an outsider, as well another thing I didn’t have. Family.
Buddy smacked his thigh with a laugh. “No way honey, now that they know what a soft touch you are, you’re a goner. Welcome to Tulip, Nina. Now, get on out of here and enjoy the rest of your night. Maybe go out on a date or get laid, as you young people say.”
I exaggerated my frown. “Laid? What’s that?”
He grinned, shooing me toward the door. “Hush up and wash that apron.”
“I’ll do it tonight, before my date with Netflix and Reese’s Famous BBQ.”
“That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard,” Buddy teased. “Just wait until the blue hairs hear you’re still single.”
Sheriff Henderson was considerately holding the door open for me to exit, so I resisted the urge to flip Buddy the bird as I took off for the night. “Evening, Sheriff.”
“Evenin’, Miss Nina.” He was as polite as he was handsome. And quiet. In fact, he’d be perfect for Janey’s calendar.
“Wanna grab a beer tonight?” Nate Callahan asked me as we left the Search & Rescue offices on the top floor of Tulip’s Emergency Services building.
“Maybe. I’ll let you know, but right now, I’m beat.” Search and rescue shifts were similar to fire departments — Nate and I worked three days straight with two days off, which sounded worse than it was since most of the time was spent watching for fire hazards and reposting signs.
“Beat? We had one rescue and it was two experienced hikers. What has you so tired, a woman?” Nate looked over at me and I saw the hope in his eyes quickly turn to disappointment.
“I’m just tired, that’s all. We’re not as young as we used to be, you know.”
Nate laughed. “Speak for yourself, old man. If you change your mind, I’ll be at the Black Thumb by nine. And if I don’t see you there, I’ll pray that you’re wrapped around some fine young thing.”
“Bless you,” I replied sarcastically and groaned as we stepped outside. My older brother Grant was leaning against my blue Escalade, a vehicle which made me stick out like a sore thumb here in pickup truck country.
“Good luck with that,” Nate said, nodding in my brother’s direction. “If you do need a drink, or ten, my spare room is yours.”
“Thanks, Nate. See you bright and early Saturday morning.”
He sighed at the reminder of our early clock-in time, the same way he always did. “Don’t remind me!”
My good mood lasted exactly as long as it took me to reach my ride. “I’m too tired for your games today, Grant.”
My brother pushed off the front of the car and smoothed the sides of his designer suit, probably chosen by our mother. “Good, because I’m not here for games.”
“Yeah? Then why are you here?” I couldn’t remember the last time he’d stopped by to see me without an ulterior motive.
“Mom wants to see you for Sunday dinner this week.”
There it was. “Then she should call and invite me,” I retorted. “Or, I don’t know, maybe learn my work schedule.”
Which was exactly what I’d been telling our mother since she’d informed me that I was no longer part of the family, after I’d chosen S&R over law school. Not that it mattered — without an apology, I still did exactly what was expected of someone bearing the Worthington name, which meant presenting a united, picture-perfect front in public. But when it came to family get-togethers, I didn’t waste my time with my own, opting instead to spend time with my best friend Ry’s big group of boisterous relatives.
Grant sighed, like he was the one put out by a visit he’d initiated. “When are you going to let this go? It’s getting old.”
“If you hate it so much, stop dropping by uninvited.” That was the problem with Grant: he thought he was always right. I thought he was just an asshole. “Trust me, these little visits aren’t the highlight of my day, either.”
“No. Stop.” I put a hand to Grant’s chest, so he knew I was serious. “Mom made her decision and she’s stuck to it all these years. So have I. If she wants to change things, Mom knows what she has to do.” I didn’t hate my mom, but I didn’t like her much either. Even though she was a snob who respected no one’s opinion but her own, I’d be willing to try if she offered up a sincere apology. “Now, if that’s all you wanted?”
Grant stared at me with blue eyes about two shades lighter than mine, trying to figure me out. It was a waste of time, really, because I was a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of guy. “That’s all,” he said, finally.
“Good. See you around.” It was a lie we both told each other, because it wouldn’t do for the town’s favored sons to be obviously at each other’s throats.
The drive home took the same fifteen minutes it always did. There was never any traffic this time of day, and few people lived on the edge of town, if they could help it. But to me, the southern edge of Tulip was perfect, and when Gary Strange had put the lot up for sale a few years back, I’d bought it and built a place overlooking the picturesque lake.
“Home sweet home.” Inside the front door, I kicked off my boots and stripped down as I made my way to the bathroom. It was kind of ritualistic for me, taking a hot shower after a long shift to help gauge if I was truly exhausted or just too tired to deal with people. Even after stepping out of the steaming bathroom and changing into something more comfortable than my S&R uniform, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to hit the sack, so I grabbed a couple beers and went out to my deck. To relax.
Watching the calm waters of the lake had a soothing effect on me, which I needed after another run-in with Grant the self-appointed peacekeeper of the family. It was a role he’d excelled in, until I’d thrown the proverbial wrench in our family’s plan for me to, eventually, become lead counsel for Worthington Enterprises. Since then, things had broken down so much there was no longer any peace to be kept.
But here, at my home, there was always peace. Mostly because I only issued invites to friends. Close friends. My space wasn’t open to women or family.
The sound of the phone ringing on the deck next to my beer broke the spell the lake had slowly begun to cast on me, and I reached over to pick it up. “Yeah?”
“Dude, your phone manners would shock an ape.”
I couldn’t stop the smile that spread across my face at the sound of my best friend’s voice. “Ry, if an ape is calling me, he deserves my bad manners — I don’t recall giving my number to any apes.”
His loud, barking laugh sounded down the line. “I don’t know, Pres. Maybe you’ve got a new type.” The thing I loved about Ry was his ever-present optimism. He didn’t let anything in life get him down and, without fail, started every damn day with a smile. It was a trait I admired but had no real desire to emulate. “Drinks tonight at the Black Thumb?”
“Isn’t tonight Ladies Night?”
“Exactly. The ladies will show up for half-priced drinks and, by the time we get there, they’ll be tipsy enough to stop pretending to be good girls.”
I snorted. “We grew up with damn near every woman in town, Ry. Who do you have your eye on?”
“No one in particular.” The answer came too fast to be true, but I let it slide. “So, tonight? I have news you’ll want to hear.”
“I’m all ears now, Ry.”
“Fine, stay in the house until your cock shrivels up and dies from lack of use. See if I care.”
“My cock appreciates your concern, man.”
He snorted, and I could picture his smile — part annoyed and part amused. “Only because you’re my brother from another mother will I indulge in any sort of gossip with you.”
“Word around town is that Sabrina Worthington is engaging in a bit of matchmaking, inviting nearly a dozen women to one of her infamous dinner parties. This Sunday.”
I groaned. My mother Sabrina only had two children with James Worthington, my dad: Grant who was dating one of the governor’s daughters, and me. Painfully, permanently single me. “That makes sense. Grant was waiting for me when I got off work, issuing an invite on Mom’s behalf. I wondered why.”
“Well, now we know. Preston will soon be off the market.” Ry’s voice boomed loudly, a sure sign that he was either alone or in the presence of one of his three sisters, who loved to pretend they had crushes on me.
“Seeing as she hasn’t apologized to me, I won’t be there on Sunday.” And, now that I knew what her motives were, I’d make sure to be busy. “Work.”
“I feel your pain, man, I really do. Even if you would be doing me a solid by going to this party and getting some numbers for me. These chicks are rich, right?”
I laughed. Ry talked a big game, but he was the proverbial nice guy. “You can go in my place, since Mom will definitely have a place setting for me.” So few people went against her wishes, she’d grown to expect that the whole world would bow down at her bidding.
“I’d rather have you do the heavy lifting.”
I wouldn’t be doing any lifting. I’d be at work on Sunday until late in the afternoon, and then I would sleep at least ten hours. And there would be no husband-hunters to be seen. “If you don’t show up in my place, you’ll have to make it happen with Lefty and Righty.”
Ry barked out a laugh that was way too loud and way too amused for my liking. “I always find a way. So, am I gonna see you at the Black Thumb tonight?”
I glanced down at the beer in my hand and at the other dripping condensation on the wooden slats next to me before I turned my gaze back to the lake, smiling. “Nah. I’m fine right where I am.”