Devil's Bend - 1
To my amazing mother and my wonderful mother-in-law:
There will never be any way to show just how much I love you both, but please know that you mean everything to me.
Thank you so much for your love and encouragement.
At the sound of her name, Tessa Donovan glanced up from the beer she was pouring. Not that she needed to. She knew exactly which man owned that sexy, country drawl.
“Awww, hell!” she exclaimed, glancing down to see a mess of foam as it poured over the edge of the glass she was filling.
“Well, don’t get too excited that I’m here,” Eric Lancaster, the only other bartender that The Rusty Nail employed, said with a cocky grin as he headed her way.
“I blame you, Mr. Lancaster,” she grinned sheepishly as she grabbed a towel and wiped the overflow off of her hands.
“You can drop that mister shit right here and now,” Eric teased. “Keep it up and I’ll start callin’ you ma’am.”
“Ok, buddy. No need to start with the threats,” Tessa joked, returning her focus to the new glass she grabbed, paying attention this time as the foam lifted to the top. Once full, she slid it over to the man at the end of the counter as she called out to him, “Hey, Tex, put your hands on the beer, not the lady. You know she’s married, right?”
The stranger who’d bellied up to the bar half an hour ago had the decency to blush. Didn’t stop him from hitting on the bar bunny though. The very same bar bunny with a wedding band on. Tessa glanced down at his hand. Great. He had one on too, and it wasn’t from a matching set. Lovely.
As Eric made his way around behind the bar, Tessa grabbed another glass, filled another beer and passed it over to another waiting customer. Story of her life.
“Ow!” Tessa hollered when Eric swatted her on the ass, as was his usual greeting. “Don’t let your ol’ lady see you doin’ that.”
“She might just be jealous that I got to touch your ass, you know that right?” Eric’s sexy rumble echoed around the bar.
Glancing over at him, Tessa smiled. If it weren’t for the fact that Eric was more like her brother than her own brothers sometimes, she might just get excited. Ok, no. That wasn’t true either. She’d grown up with Eric, and since he was actually married to her best friend, Isabelle, Tessa knew more about him than she cared to. Probably no attraction to be had no matter the case.
He was a decent guy though.
“You’re probably right on that one,” she said, making Eric laugh.
The sexy rumble that followed caused more than one head to turn at the bar. Eric had that effect on women… er, other women. He turned heads. In fact, Tessa was pretty sure he was almost personally responsible for the sheer volume of ladies who flocked to The Rusty Nail on a nightly basis. It was just a good thing that Izzy – Eric’s lovely bride – was one of the most confident women that she knew. Had Eric belonged to Tessa, she couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be at least one cat fight each and every night.
“You see Adam yet?” Tessa hadn’t seen her older brother all day, and that was unusual, especially for a Friday night.
Since Adam was in charge of the entertainment, he generally stopped in early to ensure there weren’t any problems with arrival, setup, that sort of thing. Considering the band wasn’t there yet, and they were closing in on seven o’clock, Tessa figured it was safe to say there were problems. If not, then this was one band that could use a course in time management. She would not be responsible for the chaos that would ensue if the main attraction did not show up on time.
“He texted me earlier. Said he had to run an errand,” Eric explained as he grabbed a bottle of vodka and began rolling shots out as they were ordered.
The bar was quickly filling up, and Tessa knew it was because of the night’s entertainment. She personally hadn’t believed Adam when he said he booked Cooper Krenshaw, but from what her brother told her, he was actually excited to play there.
Why one of the biggest names in country music wanted to play her bar, she had no idea, but she wasn’t in charge of the music selection, so she didn’t ask. She wasn’t the swoon worthy type, which meant she wouldn’t be swept off her feet by his overwhelming presence either. From the looks of it, she might be the only one though.
“Care if I take a few minutes?” she asked Eric when the walkups slowed a short time later. Although it was still early, Tessa had been running solo for the last hour, and they were busier than usual.
“Take all the time you need,” he grinned and she could’ve sworn she heard several sighs from a few of the ladies seated at the bar.
“Thanks.” Tessa pulled off her short apron and tossed it onto the shelf beneath the bar before sneaking out. She made a beeline for the back door, hoping for some fresh air before the place filled to capacity as was to be expected tonight. In fact, she had called in extra backup to man the doors because she was pretty sure there would be a line of people waiting to get in even after they hit maximum capacity. Thankfully, she had a family full of cousins who weren’t too proud to help out when needed.
Before the solid steel door could slam behind her, Tessa was inhaling the humid September night air, letting the warm breeze slide over her overheated skin. It wasn’t long before some of the tension in her shoulders eased.
Her brother Adam gave her a hard time about wanting to be outside rather than upstairs in the private office that they rarely used. Tessa couldn’t explain it, but she’d rather be inhaling the country night air than the stale, bittersweet fumes that lingered on the inside.
At least out here she could think. Inside, with the whoops and hollers of the crowd, she could barely pay attention, much less focus on anything other than serving drinks to her customers. The sheer volume of people overwhelmed her, even if she did enjoy the interaction most of the time. Tonight, it seemed that her feet were already pissed off at her, and her shift had only just begun.
Leaning back against the corrugated metal, she gave one foot a rest by propping it flat against the wall at her back before alternating to the other. It was on nights like tonight that Tessa wondered why she hadn’t become an accountant. Sure, it might be stressful in its own right, but at least she’d be able to sit down. Then again, that would probably make her crazy too.
At twenty-nine, she should’ve been used to the constant hustle, smelling like beer, and her aching feet. She and Adam had acquired the bar from their late father – a man neither of them knew all that well – six years ago, and after some careful consideration and a long talk with her husband, Richie, she’d opted to give it a go.
It could safely be said that a twenty-three year old did not come equipped with all that much wisdom when it came to running her own business, but no one would’ve been able to tell her that at the time. Hell, for years before that, no one could tell her anything at all, so it wouldn’t have mattered much then either.
Just the thought of her late husband made her heart ache. Seemed life had taken a turn some years ago, and Richie’s death was only part of the heartache Tessa had experienced. To this day, she missed him dearly. He had been a police officer, killed in the line of duty when he was only twenty-six years old. She had been twenty-five, and they’d just settled into life together, married only fifteen months when he was taken from her.
Here she was, four years later, slinging beers and dodging more than a few wandering hands night after night in the place she’d come to feel was her second home. The Rusty Nail was nothing more than an eight thousand square foot, remodeled old barn that had at one point been a feed store years and years ago. At that time, it had received an enormous overhaul which included an exterior facelift of metal walls and reinforced steel beams on the inside to support the roof as well as bear the weight of the two hundred square foot office upstairs. Not much had changed after her father had purchased the place and converted it into a bar until Adam came along and set up the stage.
Speaking of the stage, she could only hope the band showed up soon because there was an excellent chance things were going to go from bad to worse if they didn’t. If Adam left her to handle the fallout like he had the last time, she was going to give him a piece of her mind, followed by a good swift kick in the ass.
Glancing down at her watch, Tessa realized she had a few more minutes to spare, so she pushed off the wall and headed back inside. She disappeared into the restroom, using the free minutes to take care of business before washing her hands and pulling her hair up into a ponytail. While she was standing in front of the mirror, two women slammed in through the door in a flurry of giggles followed by “Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Ohmigod!”
Tessa didn’t turn to face them, but she could see them through the reflection in the mirror. Since they were effectively blocking the door, she waited for the ladies to move on so she could sneak out and get back to work. She smiled at her reflection, trying not to laugh at their giddy excitement.
“Ohmigod! Did you see him? He winked at me! Winked!” one of the ladies squealed, the other jumping up and down by her side as though this were the biggest news to hit Devil’s Bend since Jessica Sanderson told the Devil’s Bend Gazette that she was having triplets.