Downtown Lexington, with all its historic buildings and landmarks, was spread out beyond the square with Georgian-style windows behind me. Muted noise from the traffic on the streets at rush hour filtered into my office. The sun was setting, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to head home just yet.
Same shit, different day.
Kentucky was my home and the place where the greatest and best bourbon in the world was made, the greatest of them all being ours. We had the award certificates and the stickers on our bottles to prove it.
Started by my grandfather in the nineteen forties, A Chip Off the Old Block Bourbon Company had been in my family ever since. As I sat in my office, the same office that’d belonged to my father when he’d been the COO before he’d taken over from my grandpa as CEO, my gaze raked across all the pictures and posters on my walls.
Many of them were in black and white, showcasing the history of the company and how we’d grown with the community we’d built it in. The more recent pictures showed off all the accomplishments my father had achieved during his tenure in this office, and then there were a few of me at festivals and posters of the ad campaigns that had been run since I’d been appointed as the COO.
All things considered though, I had a long way to go in making my mark in a company that was an octogenarian. Part of my job, however, was ensuring that we didn’t operate like said octogenarian, which was why I ended up staying late most nights.
It was up to me to keep things moving on a day-to-day basis, and those pictures on the walls were a constant reminder of the shoes I had to fill and the reputations I had to live up to. Thankfully, I’d literally been raised to do this job. All that was left now was to actually do it.
My office door banging open jerked me out of my reverie and made me snap my head up. An instinctive scowl knitted my features at the interruption, but then I sighed and let it go when I saw who it was.
“All work and no play makes Craig a dull boy,” Lane said in the same annoying, sing-song voice he’d been using since we were kids. “How’s it hanging, big brother? Who pissed you off today for you to have that look on your face?”
“You,” I said without giving it a second thought.
My younger brother was wearing his typical uniform of blue jeans, a plaid shirt tucked in at the front to show off his massive, ostentatious belt buckle, and leather boots on his feet. He was of the “suits are the armor of the corporate army” mindset, and since he was a self-proclaimed non-corporate drone, he made a point of never wearing one.
For that matter, he’d never met a brush he liked using on a regular basis either. We both had shaggy brown hair, but at least I tried to keep mine from looking like I was a devil-may-care cowboy. Lane, on the other hand, seemed to prefer his looking wild.
Just some of the many, many differences between us.
Even so, he was my brother. Family. Which meant I couldn’t boot him out of my office regardless of how much I might’ve wanted to. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for dad,” he said cheerfully, waltzing farther in and making himself comfortable on the couch in the seating area in front of my windows. He flopped down, kicked his feet up, crossed them at the ankles, and grinned at me. “Have you seen him around? I went to his office, but he’s not there. It’s like a ghost town on that side of the building.”
“That’s because they all left early,” I said, rolling my chair back to put my own feet up. “Dad took off around noon on a business trip for the weekend. You can try calling if you really need to talk to him, but the trip is with the Old Timers Guild. I’m willing to bet they’re already knee-deep in reminiscing about the eighties and criticizing each other’s best blends of the year.”
“Bunch of assholes,” he said, nodding his agreement before cocking his head at me. “Yet here you are, being Dad’s bitch while he gets to go off drinking for the weekend and sleeping with bourbon sluts.”
“Why would you even be thinking about our father sleeping with someone?” I shook my head. “That’s just… disturbing.”
He let out a bark of laughter, lifting his brows as he waved a finger between my chest and his. “What? Your naïve little brain can’t grasp the thought of our father having sex? Where do you think we came from?”
I scoffed and pointed at him. “You’d better not be calling Mom a bourbon slut.”
“Never,” he said, solemn for zero point two seconds as he thought about our mother. Then he wagged his brows at me. “Since the old man is off enjoying the whiskey and the women that never seem to be too far away from it, what do you say we go find ourselves a drink and some company?”
“No can do,” I said, motioning toward my open laptop. “Later, sure, but I’ll have to meet up with you. Some of us have work to finish before we can call it a day.”
He smirked. “You wouldn’t have to work if you’d just invent something and strike it big like I did.”
“What you meant to say is that I should think of something dumb that I should never get much money for, invent it, and then hope for the best.”
“It worked for me.” He sat up and walked toward the windows, gesturing at the park outside. “All of those people who are going to be taking their pooches out for walks after they get home from work later have the Willer Brush somewhere in their houses. They might’ve figured out by now that the vacuum doesn’t suck all the dog’s hair into the little bag when you’re brushing it, but they’re still buying the replacement bags. It doesn’t need to be a genius invention, bro. It just needs to sort of work.”
“I just sort of need to work here,” I said. “I know it’s never been what you’ve wanted, but I actually take pride in continuing our family’s legacy. Besides, if we sold the company off because neither of us was interested in running it, you’d actually have to start paying for your stash. You’d go broke in a year or less.”
“That’s not funny,” he muttered, rolling his eyes at me. “Not even in your Craig, dry sense of humor way. It’d be two years at least.”
“Either way, you don’t want to have to think of something else to invent, do you?”
He pretended to consider it for a second, then shrugged. “I could if I had to. Plus, I could always become a bourbon slut myself. At least I’d get free drinks that way.”
“You could, except that no one would want to see your ass in a mini-skirt.” I gave an exaggerated shudder. “The city would never recover if you started strutting around in skin-tight clothes.”
“You might not want to see me like that, but I can think of plenty of ladies who’d disagree with you about not wanting to see my ass.”
I opened my mouth to respond but before I could, the landline on my desk rang. It drew Lane’s attention to the antique contraption, and he guffawed as he shook his head. “I can’t believe Dad’s making you keep those things in your offices. It’s ridiculous.”
Shrugging as I picked it up, I cradled the receiver between my ear and my hand, dropping my feet back to the floor. “Craig Willer.”
“Craig,” my father’s authoritative bark came from the other end of the line. “Are you almost done at the office?”
I frowned. “Yeah, Dad. Almost done. Why?”
Lane paused when he realized I was talking to our father. Then he started humping the lamp at my seating area and put one of his hands up in the air, waving it around. I rolled my eyes at his antics, getting up just so I could turn my back on him.
There was no way our father was giving it to some young piece of ass while he was on the phone with me, regardless of my brother’s clear opinion that it was exactly what he was doing. Thankfully, Dad couldn’t see him.
If he had, the call would’ve taken at least three times as long because the two of them would’ve gotten into it and I would’ve been left to remind them both that we were getting off track. Guess I should be glad Dad didn’t introduce video calling as our standard method of communication within the company after all.
“On your way home, you need to go by the distillery,” he said, oblivious to his younger son’s theatrics. “I got a call about a gate lock being broken. Our security company was on the scene, but they didn’t see anything out of place.”
“Okay, so why am I going out there too, then?”
He huffed out a heavy breath. “Bring a new lock with you to secure the premises for the weekend. I shouldn’t need to remind you that the company can suffer untold damages if someone does get in there. We protect what’s ours, Craig. The security company’s men might not have seen anything that seemed out of place to them, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.”
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll go take a look,” I assured him. “Get back to your conference. I’ve got things handled here.”
“I know you do,” he said, then hung up without saying goodbye.
It didn’t faze me, though. My father lived and breathed for the company. I’d long since made my peace with the fact that he wasn’t and never would be a cuddly daddy who coddled us every step of the way.
When I hung up the phone, Lane sighed loudly. He ran a hand through his hair as he gave the phone a pointed look. “I wanted to talk to him.”
“Too bad he has a strict rule against talking to you,” I said. “I’ve got to go. If you decide to go get that drink later, let me know where you are. I’ll see if I feel like going out once I’m done.”
After grabbing my phone, keys, and wallet from my drawer, I walked out of the office and left him standing next to the lamp he seemed to have a hard-on for. Chuckling softly as I imagined the look on his face if I’d made that little joke out loud, I walked out of Willer House and climbed into my car.
The distillery was a twenty-minute drive from headquarters, and as soon as I parked around the back, I realized Dad had been right. The outer doors of the storage building were cracked open and the lock was lying in the grass in front of them.
Frowning as I headed in to investigate, I pushed one of the wide doors open with my shoulder, careful not to make a sound. There was some grunting and shuffling coming from a few aisles down to my left, and then someone cursed loudly.
“Fuck! Watch my toe,” he roared.
My fists clenched and my hackles rose. Whoever these intruders were, they must’ve been lying low until the security company had left, and now they thought they were in the clear.
Think again, assholes.
Creeping quietly closer, I paused when I got to the end of the aisle where the voices were coming from. I peered around the edge of the wooden shelving to see two men trying to help themselves to some barrels of our bourbon.
Sorry, fellas. Not today.
As I took stock of what I had in my truck, I realized that there was nothing I could use as a weapon. Well, not a weapon that wouldn’t do some serious damage anyway. Whacking someone upside the head with a tire jack wasn’t a great idea.
Indignant rage flooded my insides and made the back of my tongue taste bitter, but I wasn’t about to open myself up to an aggravated assault charge—or worse—if I struck one of these idiot thieves the wrong way. Besides, I wasn’t exactly helpless without an actual weapon.
After backing off to put in a quick, quiet call to the cops, I returned to where they were now rolling the barrels down the aisle. I had the element of surprise on my side, and I wasn’t going to waste the advantage.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a good reason to start a fight. Lane and I had belonged to a boxing gym since our early teen years, and we’d trained in a variety of martial arts. You’re going down, boys.
An anticipatory grin spread across my face as I cracked my knuckles and rolled my neck. Then I leaped into action. The men never even saw me coming before I grabbed the one at the back in a submission hold from behind. With his chunky neck against my arm, I mashed him into me and tightened my grip.
He barely managed to get a gargling, choking sound out before I felt him tense in panic. Flailing and scratching at my forearm with his beefy hands, he thrashed as he tried to get free. The other guy realized his buddy had stopped talking to him and spun around with an irritated scowl on his face—until he saw me.
Shock flashed in his eyes, but then his jaw clenched and an almost manic grin spread on his face. “Stop right there. Let him go. No one needs to get hurt today.”
In response to his demands, I returned his grin and visibly tightened my hold on his friend’s neck. The man was still flailing, but I could also feel him starting to sag against me. Just a few more seconds, and he’ll be out.
“No one needed to get hurt today. You’re right. But then you decided to break into my family’s bourbon stores, so now all bets are off,” I said. “You could’ve just bought the whiskey, you know.”
“For what you charge for this swill?” He laughed derisively. “I don’t think so.”
Just as his friend slumped, he glanced at him before dropping his shoulders and charging at me. I was ready for it, though.
None too gently letting go of the unconscious one, I braced myself and went on the offensive before he could formulate too much of a strategy. Even so, he managed to land a few shots before I finally took him down.
Massaging my jaw as I kept my foot on his chest, I glared into his narrowed brown eyes. The sound of sirens was drawing closer to us, but I wasn’t worried that he’d get up before the cops arrived. His face was bloodied and swollen, and the fight had drained out of him as he writhed around on the floor.
“I hope the barrels of swill you attempted to steal was worth getting the shit beat out of you,” I said. “Do yourself a favor next time and just buy it.”
“You’re going to pay for this,” he spat between groans.
I grinned and dropped to my haunches, leaning in close to his ear just as I heard the cops running in. “My name is Craig Willer. If you need to get your ass handed to you again, feel free to come back to me anytime.”