Authors: Christie Ridgway
Brody followed suit. “Good burgers.”
The three men took seats around the table.
Gus cleared his throat. “I hope you’re here about the work the roadhouse needs. Like I said before, we could really use your help.”
Bing sent Brody a look. At times they could communicate without words, and this was one of them.
What do you want me to do, Bro?
“I’m not sure we have the time or the personnel,” Brody warned, trying to let the other man down easy. “Though we certainly have other contractors we could recommend.”
“That would be all right, I guess,” Gus said slowly, though he was clearly disappointed. “We’re feeling a pinch, you know, what with the transition and all.”
“Pinch?” Bing asked.
The heavyset man shrugged. “Restaurants, bars, it’s always a thin profit margin, ya know? And when there’s a change at the helm…” His shoulders moved up and down.
A change at the helm? Ashlynn had said Satan’s was hers. “Ash recently acquired the roadhouse?”
“Inherited it,” Gus corrected. “Her dad had owned the place for years, his folks and his grandfolks before him. Brae—Ash’s sister—was managing it until…”
His fleshy hand made a gesture Brody couldn’t interpret.
Bing glanced over at him, then back to the other man. “Until?”
“The accident.” Gus’s face settled into pained lines. “Brae and her father were killed in a pile-up on the freeway.”
, Brody thought.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bing murmured.
“It’s been hard on Ashlynn,” Gus said. “I’ve been trying to help as much as I can, but it’s been really, really hard.”
“I imagine so.” Bing again. “I don’t believe I’ve met this Ash.”
“That’s right.” Gus glanced at Brody. “It’s your brother who knows her.”
“I’m getting that now.”
Without looking, Brody could feel his twin’s sharp gaze. Prying. Probing.
Ignoring the uncomfortable feeling, Brody addressed Gus. “She’s taken over?”
“Sure. Family business. But it’s all new to her since she lived up north until recently. Until the accident.”
A shot of ice hit Brody’s bloodstream. “How recently?”
“About four months ago.”
. His fingers curled into fists. That timing meant her loss had been very, very fresh when he’d responded to her late-night flirtatious approach—which culminated in him following her to her bed where he’d fucked her brains out. Had it been within weeks of her loss? Days?
And afterward, he’d caused her to cry.
Saint, gentleman, white knight. He’d been called all of those. But this just proved how wrong labels could be. How wrong he’d been to touch her.
Which meant that he did, indeed, owe her.
Saturday nights at Satan’s were Ashlynn’s favorite. The crowd and their demands kept her busy, and not only did the amount of money changing hands give her hope she could make a go of the business, it also left little time for concerns to creep in. Maybe she had saloon-keeper DNA in every cell, because she could make change without thinking and run a credit card while popping the cap off a beer with her other hand.
This was going to be an exceptional night, she decided. She could feel it.
With a flourish, she set two bottles of a popular microbrew in front of a pair of regulars seated at her end of the bar. Irv and Viv thanked her, raising their voices over the music from the jukebox—Zac Brown Band’s “Beautiful Drug.” They wore their leathers, but Ashlynn couldn’t imagine they’d arrived by motorcycle. Rain scented the air every time the entry door opened, and new arrivals brushed drops off their shoulders as they searched for seats in the packed space.
Yes, the place was pumping tonight, which she could tell not only by the noise but also by the rate the giant bag of popcorn she kept behind the bar was swiftly emptying. She scooped up another helping for Irv and Viv and poured it into their near-empty basket.
As she made to check on another customer, Viv caught her wrist. Ashlynn’s brows rose. “Another beer?”
“No, sweet.” The sixty-something woman wore her hair in a short, chic style, the dark of it threaded with becoming silver. An elegant, aging motorcycle mama. Maybe what Ashlynn’s mother might have become if she’d stayed in Topanga—though that thought boggled the mind.
“I just want to ask how you’re doing,” Viv said.
Ashlynn glanced around, smiled. “We’re having a good night.”
“But what about you?” The older woman’s gaze caught hers. “Are
But her optimism took a little hit as she felt her smile die. Damn. She’d been faking for years—pretending to be content in her role as Carol Lexington’s perfect daughter—but with just that expression of concern she felt her façade start to crack. Swallowing hard, she fought the urge to pour herself a shot of vodka. Most nights went down easier with her colorless friend on hand, but now that she’d decided to keep the business she’d also decided it was important to stay sharp.
Which meant she was more susceptible to feeling things, damn it.
“I don’t know…”
“I miss them too,” Viv said, sympathy written all over her face. “We came here for years when your dad ran the place and looked forward to seeing Brae every time once she took over. It’s hard to believe they’re gone.”
Every day and night Ashlynn kept it together by not examining the truth of that in any real way. Keeping busy, filling silences, shrouding the grief allowed her to continue forward.
She swallowed again and tried pasting on another smile, aware of how weak it must look. “I know, Viv.”
Irv pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his leather jacket.
“We picked this up at the Topanga Community House, darlin’,” he said. “Maybe it could help.”
Ashlynn unfolded the yellow flyer.
it read across the top. They met bi-weekly at the community building.
We can help you confront your feelings.
Staring at the words, a familiar numbness infiltrated Ashlynn’s heart. Her body went heavy, and her outer shell re-hardened as everything inside her rejected the idea of confronting those kinds of emotions.
“How kind of you,” she said anyway, and made a show of setting the paper on the shelf beneath the register.
She’d throw it away at her first opportunity. “How very kind of you to think of me.”
Irv and Viv exchanged glances. She probably wasn’t fooling them into believing she’d be joining that group any time soon.
“Really,” she said, because they had been stalwart supporters since she’d arrived, spending most Saturday nights right where they sat now. “I do appreciate it—and your patronage, too, of course.”
“Watching you is like having our Brae back in our lives,” Irv said. “It’s as if she’s not entirely gone.”
There was that four-letter word again. But now it bounced right off Ashlynn’s anesthetized heart. Still, the couple’s sincerity and encouragement were two of the reasons she’d been galvanized to change her life and commit to staying. They cared about her, Irv and Viv, and that was special. Smiling again, she reached for each of their hands, squeezed.
But her attention was snagged by the bouncer who stood by the door. He was waving at her, both hands overhead.
With an apology to the older couple, she gave the other bartender the sign to look after her customers and hurried to the entrance. There, linebacker-sized Jim leaned toward her ear.
“I’ve gotta take a piss,” he murmured. “Can you get someone to handle the door?”
“I can do it,” she said. “You go ahead.”
Jim’s heavy brow furrowed with a dubious expression. “Um…”
“Brae would take over, right?”
“Yeah, but Brae was…tough,” Jim said, looking down at her five-feet and three-inches, thanks to the two added by the heels of the boots on her feet.
“I’m tough, too,” Ashlynn declared, standing straighter. She’d have to be to keep Satan’s up and running. Glancing toward the bar, she saw that Mike had everything under control there. “Why don’t you take your break now, too?”
She had to physically shoo the big guy away. But finally Jim headed toward the employee area, his mountain-sized physique making it necessary for him to skirt the customers instead of weaving through them. Then the entry door opened and a gust of damp air had her looking around again.
“Welcome to Satan’s!” she said with a wide smile.
Though Jim wasn’t required to play Happy Host—his forte was Beefy Bouncer—she was the new owner of the roadhouse, and she wanted people to feel at home here. The group of four smiled back. Residents of Malibu, she decided. They all wore expensive boots—the men’s were rugged, the women’s sheepskin-lined—and she supposed they worked behind-the-scenes in the film industry since she didn’t recognize them as celebrities. Or maybe they were successful science geeks from the research facility there that had a killer ocean view and a reputation for super-secret projects.
Both types were good tippers.
But because she was new at this and had heard rumors of sting operations out of the local sheriff’s station, she asked to see their IDs. The men agreed without comment or complaint, the women, who looked to be about thirty, seemed pleased.
“We could pass as underage,” one said to the other with a wink.
, Ashlynn thought and directed them toward the tables with another bright smile. “Enjoy yourselves!”
As they disappeared into the throng of other paying guests, she grinned, this time to herself. Yes, tonight was going to be excellent. Her lucky evening.
A few minutes later the rain was really pouring down as another knot of people came through the door, almost falling as they pushed and shoved each other to get out of the inclement weather. Five young men, she could tell, though their faces were obscured by baseball caps with dripping brims worn low on their foreheads.
“It’s damn cold,” the one at the rear said, nudging the guy in front of him forward. “I need a beer to warm up.”
They made to angle past her without actually making eye contact.
“Hold up,” she said, blocking their path. “Welcome to Satan’s.”
“Yeah yeah,” one muttered. “Thanks.”
“I’ll need to see some ID.”
“What?” The closest one, the presumed leader of their small pack, dipped his chin so he could see her from beneath his Dodgers hat. “We’re regulars.”
“Well I’m new,” Ash said.
“And I’m not Brae.”
The young man in the back muttered something but she ignored him. “IDs, gentlemen, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
The atmosphere surrounding them seemed to darken. She took in a quick breath and decided they’d already been drinking. They smelled like beer and whisky, and her stomach knotted. With a force of will, she stopped herself from looking around for Jim or someone else to come to her aid.
I’m the new owner and operator of Satan’s Roadhouse. I can do this.
One of the boys sniggered. She decided then and there that’s what they were—boys. Their skinny hips and ragged shoes were suddenly making that point very clear.
“We just want to play some pool,” the leader said in a sullen voice.
“Not unless you can prove you’re over 21.”
The door behind them opened, but she didn’t let her attention wander to newcomers.
Without another word, the leader tried stepping around her again, but she moved quickly to obstruct his path. His anger was palpable.
“Lady, just get the hell—”
“I’m sorry,” she said in her firmest tone. There was only one solution to this circumstance. You only needed common sense to realize that. “But I’m now asking you to leave.”
She thought a new, lower voice sounded from behind the pack, but the music—something rock that she didn’t recognize—hit a drum solo, and she couldn’t be sure. The boy at the front tilted his chin to meet her eyes again.
Without flinching, she stared into his. “Time to go.”
That voice again from the back. In response to it or perhaps to her stare, the leader retreated a step, tripping on the shoes of the boy behind him. He cursed, spun, and then shoved that guy into the others in the group. They all pitched unsteadily like bowling pins—or half-drunken fools—then righted themselves and departed in a rush of heavy footsteps and under-the-breath curses.
The final malevolent backward glance from Dodgers Hat made obvious she’d embarrassed if not downright humiliated him.
Still, that thought didn’t stop elation from welling up inside her as she watched the door close behind the troublemakers. She’d handled a real problem on her own. For the first time, she was actually running the roadhouse instead of merely going through the motions.
Her lucky night.
With a start, she whirled toward the sound of her name. The person who had come in behind the underage boys had moved aside as they exited. He stepped toward her now. Brody Maddox, stealing her breath with his chiseled cheekbones and arresting blue eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, hyperaware of what she was wearing. Brae’s gauzy blouse was cut low, and her black velvet skirt’s hemline was high. The scrunchy lace of the boot cuffs she wore covered her knees, but there was a lot of bare thigh still revealed. Brody’s gaze, however, didn’t leave her face.
“You shouldn’t be dealing with that,” he said, nodding toward the door.
She frowned. “My customers?”
“They aren’t your customers. They’re punks. If they’re 21 then I’m the latest champion of the Westminster Kennel Club.”
Since he was the farthest thing from a dog of any man she’d ever seen, she pressed her lips together.
“This is not the place for you, Ash.”
Anger shot up her spine. “I’m the one who determines the place for me.” Finally, she was doing that—as opposed to what others expected of her. She slammed her arms over her chest. “I have a right to be at the roadhouse.”
His brows lifted. “I meant manning the front door. You’re not exactly bouncer material.”
Still, she lifted her chin. “I got them to leave, didn’t I?” Then she narrowed her eyes. “What will it take for you to do the same?”