Johnnie let out a long breath, wiping the sweat from his brow. It might only be the second week of November, but the lower temperature didn’t mean hard work couldn’t still make him hotter than a honeymoon hotel.
His breath caused a cloud of sawdust to sail off the top of the bar and across the newly stained hardwood floors. From the end of the bar, his older brother Jim straightened and stretched, positioning his hands in the small of his back and letting out a groan.
They’d spent the day sanding the bar Jim had helped him build with his own two hands. It was better than the old one, which had been clapped together with cheap materials and painted a matte black. By the time they were finished with this one, the length of bur oak taken from a tree on his family’s ranch would gleam like it was lit from within. Jim had suggested they leave in some of the rugged natural edges at the end of the bar, leveling into a straight surface where the stools would sit. It was a work of art, probably too good for the patrons that would sit at it.
The front door to the Whiskey River Saloon swung open and Jameson walked in. He paused just inside the threshold, waiting for Jim to signal if there were any sections that were still under construction. “It’s all dry,” Jim said, waving the eldest MacAllen brother into the bar.
“It’s coming together,” Jameson said, scanning the wide open room.
It was coming together, and Johnnie had his family to thank for his progress. And not just his family. The whole of Whiskey River had pitched in to get the saloon put back together after it was hit by a fire that had damaged almost every part of the place. In record time, no less. It had only taken weeks to get scorched debris pulled down and a new saloon put in its place.
Which was a good thing, too. The cost was well over what he’d had stashed in his bank account. Even if he sold his entire wine collection, he wouldn’t have been able to cover the cost of repairs. And after the fire, most of his collection had been found ruined, either the bottles shattered or melted, or the wine boiled by the heat and now undrinkable. Johnnie tried not to think about the amount of money and time he’d spent on his secret hobby.
Instead he focused on gratitude. Appreciation. The town had come together to help him, and he knew he’d never be able to repay all the free labor and material goods that had been donated. The storage area was stuffed with donated chairs, tables, and stools, and even dishes, cutlery, and appliances. He had almost everything he needed to reopen, except for one very big problem.
“Who am I gonna get to work in this place when it reopens?” he asked, causing his brothers to turn in his direction. Johnnie set down his sanding block and wiped his hands on his dusty jeans. “Staining the bar and then setting up the furnishings and bottles will be done in the next couple days. I can reopen by the end of the week. ‘Cept I got no one to sling bottles with me.”
“What about Bernie?” Jameson asked. “He’s a qualified bartender, right?”
“He can tend bar, but he’s a better barback and an even better bouncer. I’m fine to tend bar myself. I’m more worried about the waitstaff.”
Jim cleaned his hands with a rag as he spoke. “What about your old waitresses? Aren’t they coming back?”
“Lee enrolled in beauty school over in Lubbock,” Johnnie said, rolling his eyes. The bottle blonde waitress was in her mid-twenties and obsessed with changing her hair almost as often as she redid those ridiculously long fake nails she wore. “And Carine ran off with that idiot boyfriend of hers. Her mama said they were headed to Florida.”
“Just what that state needs,” Jameson said. “Two more MENSA members.”
Jim chuckled. “At least they’ve got each other. And they don’t have to worry about the sun scrambling their brains since they’re already scrambled.”
“More like over easy,” Jameson shot back, and both brothers melted down into laughter.
Johnnie let out a huff. “It might be funny, but I can assure you, staring down the barrel of a reopening with no waitresses is no laughing matter.”
“Can you put off the grand reopening a little longer?” Jameson asked.
“Not if I want to be able to feed myself. My credit cards are maxed out just resupplying the bar and kitchen, let alone pitching in on building costs.”
“And Peyton has lined up a big act for the reopening, someone whose schedule isn’t flexible,” Jim added.
Peyton was Jim’s wife, and unlike the three gentlemen in the room, she hadn’t been born and raised in Whiskey River. She was from California, and her father was a hotshot real estate developer with friends in high places. Her eyes had shone when she’d told Johnnie that she’d book him the biggest name she could get to draw in the crowds when he reopened his doors. That name happened to be Kristy Black, an up and coming country singer whose new single was climbing the charts. “She might not be Hank Williams,” Mama May had said, “but she can carry a tune and doesn’t need a bucket. Plus, she’s easy on the eyes.”
“We need to reopen,” Johnnie said. “Not just for me and my wallet but for the town. The sheriff a town over is getting tired of filling his drunk tank up with our residents, and since we don’t know when the next square dance will be, this bar is all people have to blow off a little steam now that the harvest is over.”
“What about the insurance company?” Jameson asked. “Shouldn’t they be issuing you a check soon?”
“You tell me,” Johnnie said, coming out from behind the bar as his agitation made him need to pace the floor. “I’ve talked to that dang adjuster about three times. He keeps asking the same damn questions too. I don’t understand why he hasn’t filed his report already.”
The night of the fire was still vivid in Johnnie’s mind. He’d been working the bar when he’d smelled smoke and hurried into the kitchen. But it hadn’t been coming from the kitchen. Rushing back into the bar, he’d hustled everyone out the door as the temperature inside increased. Once everyone was out, he’d intended to go back in to find the source of the fire, but flames were already licking up the bar when he’d reopened the front door. So he’d stood across the street with the rest of the crowd, waiting for the fire department to put out the blaze.
“I can talk to the fire captain,” Jameson volunteered. “He’s part of the poker game I play on Wednesday nights. Maybe he knows why the insurance company hasn’t paid out yet.”
“Please do because my bank account is about as empty as Jim’s underpants.”
Jameson laughed, but Jim scowled in his brother’s direction. “At least it’s not my skull that’s empty, like yours. Besides, Peyton hasn’t complained about what I’m packing in my pants.”
“She’s too nice of a girl to say anything,” Jameson said, approaching Jim and patting him on the shoulder.
Jim shrugged it off, tossing his rag down on the bar’s surface. “I’m not going to stick around here and be insulted.”
“Would you prefer we insult you somewhere else?” Johnnie couldn’t help pouring it on. He and his siblings had been teasing one another since time immemorial. It was a well-ingrained habit by now.
“Speaking of insulting,” Jameson cut in. “I just had an idea for your waitstaff problem. Why not hire Evan? Or re-hire him, I should say.”
Johnnie spit out a curse. “Worst idea you ever had. Worst idea I ever had. Evan was useless here.”
“He’s got to be better now, right? Sadie has calmed down a lot of his wild ways. He could work in a pinch, until you hire someone better.” Jim’s tone was logical, but there was no logic Johnnie could understand that involved his younger brother working for him again.
“Nope. Some things you never try again. Like lube made out of ghost peppers.”
Both brothers’ jaws dropped. “You never tried that,” Jim said in disbelief.
“Course I didn’t. That’s because I have some sense in my head. Enough sense never to hire Evan again.”
Jameson laughed. “Okay, I hear you. But what about another member of the family? Brenne seems like she’d be a good fit for waiting tables, at least until you can hire some qualified staff.”
“Brenne,” Johnnie said slowly as he considered her. His younger sister was the only girl out of eight siblings. She was used to handling rowdy situations, having grown up with seven brothers. She’d always been more tomboy than girly girl, and she had no problem putting a man with misguided romantic notions in his place.
Johnnie remembered when she’d been in high school and some poor sap had gotten a crush on her. He’d shown up to the farm with a bouquet of daisies he’d clearly picked himself to ask her to go steady. She’d taken the daisies from him and proceeded to hit him over the head with them repeatedly until he’d run off, too afraid to ever ask her out again. Brenne had grown up some since then, but he’d not seen her dating anyone, even casually. So fending off handsy patrons wouldn’t be a tough sell on her.
“Maybe that’s not a half-bad idea,” he said at last. “I could make Kristy Black’s schedule if we open our doors on Saturday night. Brenne loves me enough to do me this favor.”
Jim and Jameson looked at each other, identical smiles on their faces. “Sure she does,” Jameson said, causing Jim to burst into laughter.
Johnnie’s mouth flattened into a line. “You suggested it!”
“Just make sure you ask her in front of us,” Jim said, slinging an arm over Jameson’s shoulder. “That will pay us back for all this free labor.”
“I’ll call her right now,” Johnnie said, his dander up. “We’re close. I used to save her Barbies when Evan and Elijah’s G.I. Joes would mount an attack.”
“Brenne never played with Barbies,” Jim said, but Jameson shushed him, his face filled with eager glee.
Johnnie hit the button to activate the speaker, turning up the volume so his brothers could hear. He knew Brenne would give him some shit about his request, but she’d come through in the end. They’d see.
“No,” Brenne said instead of “hello” when she answered the phone.
Johnnie rolled with it. “…Is what you would have said if you didn’t know that it was your favorite brother calling.”
“I have caller ID. I know it’s you, Johnnie.” Her voice was flat, her attitude unmoved by his joke. “And besides, Jim just texted me that you were going to ask me to wait tables. I’m not gonna do that.”
Johnnie shot his brother a killing look. “It seems I’ve been set up. So you’re not interested in waiting tables for me?”
“And you’re willing to watch your favorite brother slide into poverty because the doors to his saloon never open again?”
“Dramatic much?” Brenne sighed. “You’re acting like there’s no one else that can serve roughnecks their bottles of beer. Go call some of the list of bimbos who used to be on your payroll over the years. Someone has got to be willing to come back.”
“I will. I’ll try, but if I want Kristy Black to play this Saturday night to bring in the crowds and to say thank you to all the people who have helped me raise this bar from the dead, then—”
“Kristy Black?” Brenne interrupted him. “You’re telling me that country star Kristy Black is coming to Whiskey River. Tell me another one, Pinocchio.”
“Pinocchio didn’t tell lies because his nose—ah, forget it. I won’t argue. I guess you’ll have to hear about Kristy’s performance from one of the bimbos, if I can manage to convince someone to serve roughnecks their beers.”
“Jameson,” Brenne called loudly. “He’s making this up about Kristy, right?”
“’Fraid not, sis,” Jameson replied. “Peyton knows her. She’s arranged it.”
“Well crap,” Brenne said. “Why Peyton didn’t tell me, I don’t know.”
“I think she wanted it to be a surprise,” Jim said. “She knew you were into her, and Kristy’s manager knows Archer through some property investment they made together. She thought she could help Johnnie and impress you in addition.”
“Oh, I’m definitely impressed,” Brenne said, letting out a low whistle.
“You know, as part of the staff, you’d be able to assist Miss Black in setting up. You’d probably be able to ask her anything you wanted to know. Maybe even get an autograph.”
“Fine,” Brenne said. “I’ll do it. But if this turns out to be some trick, I’ll burn your bar down again myself.”