CHAPTER ONE- LEAH
There were certain moments in life that were just too good not to capture on film. Seeing a plume of smoke rising from my brother’s butt was definitely one of those moments. Luckily, I had my phone in my hand already when I spotted it, and I flipped on the camera even as I warned him about it.
“You know how I’m always telling you that if you don’t slow down, your ass is going to catch fire?” I asked conversationally, tilting my head as I watched him spin toward me in the narrow space between the counter and the fryer.
“Yeah?” Rick frowned, his emerald-green eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What about it?”
I flicked a finger toward his backside, pressing my lips together to keep from laughing. “It looks like it’s finally happened.”
“What—” His head snapped down as he pushed out his butt and craned his neck to get a look at what I was talking about.
Letting out a yelp worthy of a slapstick movie, he started jumping up and down, his hands wildly smacking at his own behind. If he had been in any danger, I would have jumped in to help him instead of pausing for a moment just to take it all in.
As things were, however, it was only the rag hanging out of the back pocket of his jeans that was smoking. It wasn’t even properly on fire. So I took a moment to take it in because holy hell, it was priceless.
Rick James, everybody. There he was. My brother, the great all-American football star, former jock of our high school, and current hometown hero, squealing like a toddler and spanking his own ass. All six-foot-three of pure muscle bouncing as he tried to get at one little rag.
Not able to contain my laughter any longer, I bent over and clutched my stomach as I finally let it all out. Rick glared at me. “Are you going to help me?”
“Relax,” I managed between chuckles. I straightened up, reaching out to pluck the rag from his pocket. “There we go. I literally saved your ass.”
Twisting around, I balled up the rag and dropped it into the industrial sink behind me, then opened the faucet to douse it in water. “See? It wasn’t so bad. Jeez. I wonder if the fire department will still let you volunteer after that.”
His gaze darted down toward his butt again, a relieved breath of laughter coming out of him as his cheeks pinked. “No one will ever know about this.”
“On the contrary,” I said, biting my cheek to fight a grin as I motioned toward the rest of the kitchen. “We were all witnesses to the only embarrassing moment of your entire life. I’ll treasure it forever.”
For the first time, he seemed to remember where we were. Slowly looking around at the two other employees of his restaurant, he sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“You saw that, huh?”
Marlee, the waitress, nodded as she flashed him a smile. “It’s a good thing Leah was here. There are a few girls in town who would’ve been mighty disappointed if something had happened to that ass.”
Rick’s broad chest puffed out. “That’s because it’s such a fine ass.”
“Nah, it’s just an ass that gets around,” Shaun, the fry cook, joked as he lifted his beefy hand for a high-five from me.
I slapped my palm into his, shrugging at my brother when he rolled his eyes at us. “What? It’s all true. Maybe your ass should behave itself better if it doesn’t want comments to be made about it.”
“Right.” He let out a shout of laughter. “I’m the James sibling who needs to behave better. Aren’t all of you supposed to be working for me? Why do I have to put up with this?”
“Because you’ve created such a great atmosphere in your business that we’re all comfortable enough to speak freely,” I said, giving him my sweetest smile. “Thanks, boss. You’re the best.”
He snorted. “You have to say that, or you’ll be out of a job.”
“I’ll be out of at least four jobs actually.” I started listing them on my fingers. “Let’s see. There’s payroll, bookkeeping, line cook, and cleaner. A few others, too. I’ve also been the bouncer, the marketer, and the new recipe tester.”
“You said you’d fit in wherever I need you,” he said, raising both his shoulders before dropping them again. “Besides, you studied at culinary school but you can’t stand cooking for money. You’re lucky you’re even working in the hospitality industry after that.”
“I wanted to refine my skills and you told me it would help you when we started developing a menu for this place,” I said, arching a brow at him as I leaned with my hip against the counter. “It was hardly studying anyway. I took a few short courses that you’ve definitely benefited from.”
“Can’t argue with that.” He grinned and reached out to swat my shoulder playfully. “Thanks for saving my butt. It really would’ve sucked if it had gotten burned.”
“I keep telling you that you’re going get it burned if you don’t settle down soon,” I said. “I just never imagined it would be the restaurant doing the burning. I honestly thought you were going to meet your match in a woman sooner rather than later and that she’d be the one to do it.”
“If I ever meet my match in a woman, I’m screwed,” he replied, expression serious but his eyes alight with humor. “It’ll make for some interesting times. That’s for sure.”
“Interesting times during which you finally get put in your place?” I pretended to think for all of five seconds. “I’d be here for that. I’m already Team Woman.”
Marlee gave me a pat on the arm when she passed me. “You have to be Team Woman, honey. We all do. It’s part of the girl code. Even if the man involved is your very own brother, you still have to side with the girl.”
Rick pouted, scrubbing his fingers over the stubble on his jaw. “That doesn’t sound fair to me. She’s my little sister. Leah should always be Team Awesome. I mean, Team Rick. Obviously.”
“Sorry, Team Awesome.” Marlee smirked and offered me her fist to bump. “It’s not our rules. It’s the girl code. You’ll just have to learn to live with it.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” he said, sidling up to sling his arm over my shoulders. “I’d be in a time of crisis. You wouldn’t leave me in a time of crisis, would you?”
“I’d leave you any time,” I joked, rolling my head back on his arm to wink up at him. “Just kidding. You’d be lost without me. I’d draw you a map first. Then I’d leave you. Not a minute before.”
I escaped his grip, leaving him to shake his head at me and feign disappointment. “When did you become so sassy? I could’ve sworn you used to be all sweet and adoring of me.”
“I was five,” I said. “My sixth birthday came with an attitude and the realization that you weren’t as great as I’d previously thought.”
He gripped his chest and faked a grimace. “Ouch. You’ve wounded me. Fatally.”
Taking a step closer, I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “No, I haven’t. I merely took a jab at your ego. It can take it. I know it can. You’re the great Rick James. Your ego is more than big enough to withstand a few knocks.”
He sighed but eventually shrugged and wagged his eyebrows at me. “You still think I’m great. You said it. The ‘Great’ Rick James. Boom. I knew you still adored me.”
I groaned, bringing my hands up to my face and peeking out at him between my fingers. “It’s called sarcasm. There was a healthy dose of sarcasm in there.”
“Nah.” He waved one of his hands at me, a wide grin on his face as he shrugged again. “There was no sarcasm. You think I’m great. It’s already out there. You can’t take it back now.”
Before I could set him straight, his phone started buzzing on the industrial metal counter in front of us. He frowned when he saw the name on the screen, all of the good-natured humor fading from his eyes when he answered it.
“Sarah?” he said. “Is everything okay?”
I watched him closely while he spoke to her, noticing his gaze tracking over to me every so often as he listened to whatever his other waitress was saying. Rick’s Restaurant had become a staple in our little town just outside of Austin, Texas. He had a small contingent of loyal workers and together, we kept the regulars coming back for more.
Something had been bothering my brother all morning and having seen his reaction when the phone had rung, I was pretty sure it was about Sarah. I knew she was scheduled to be on shift tomorrow, but I had a feeling she wouldn’t be coming in.
As soon as Rick hung up the phone, my suspicions were confirmed. The corners of his lips pressed in when he looked at me. Then he released a breath through his nostrils.
“No,” I said before he could ask. “We’ve been over this before. I’m willing to fit in wherever you need me in this business but not as a server. I can’t work directly with the customers.”
He dragged a hand through his thick brown hair, cocking his head as he eyed me. “What if I offered you a hundred and fifty dollars to behave and take the serving shift tomorrow? Sarah called earlier this morning and said she had to go to the doctor. That was her saying that she can’t come in for the next few days. I’ve got people to cover every shift except for tomorrow’s. Please, Leah?”
“It’s not about behaving,” I protested. “If I could, I would, but it’s my mouth. It has a mind of its own and it says things without thinking.”
“Yeah, I know.” He grinned and tapped the side of his head. “I know exactly what goes on up there, but I also know that you can rein it in for one day.”
“Maybe I can,” I conceded. “But that day can’t be tomorrow. I’m washing my hair.”
“Your hair looks fine to me.” He narrowed his eyes as he lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Come on, it’s a hundred and fifty dollars for one shift. I know you’ve never done it before, but you’ll be great.”
“Actually, I’m taking my hamster for a photo shoot,” I said, snapping my fingers. “So sorry.”
“You don’t have a hamster.” He rolled his eyes at me. “Don’t try to tell me that you’ve gotten one either. I was at your place two days ago.”
“I’m getting it this afternoon,” I said, mind racing as I tried to remember if there was a pet shop on my way home. I’d really have to commit if I wanted him to buy this. “It’s not that I don’t want to, really. It’s just that I have a prior commitment.”
“No, you don’t.” He looked right at me. “Just try not to say everything that jumps into your head, and you’ll be fine.”
I wouldn’t be fine, but I couldn’t say no to him when he looked at me like that. My brother and I were close and when he needed me—like he did tomorrow—I was genetically incapable of turning him down. I swore it had been written into my DNA. Thou shalt have Rick’s back.
We went back and forth for a little while longer, but I couldn’t get out of it. Eventually, I told him I’d be here and then planted my hands on my hips. “I’m going home to write now. Don’t call me for the rest of the day.”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t dream of disturbing you while you’re writing the world’s next great love story. See you tomorrow. Thanks, Leah.”
“Anytime,” I mumbled, shooting him a wave as I turned to leave.
I loved my brother, and I loved working at his restaurant, but I hated feeling like I’d been backed into a corner. I knew he’d only done it because he was desperate since Sarah couldn’t come in, but still.
Serving was the one role I’d steered clear of thus far and it had been for good reason. I didn’t have much of a filter, and usually, I didn’t really care. But people expected certain things from a meal at Rick’s, and I didn’t want to be responsible for letting them down.
Opening his restaurant had been my brother’s dream come true. If he got even one bad review because of people having to deal with me, I’d feel terrible. Especially after all the hard work I’d put into helping him make it a success.
On the other hand, if he did get a bad review because of me after I’d tried saying no, then it was on him. We both knew why I was better off behind the scenes, and he was the one shoving me to the front now.
I sat down behind my computer once I got home, and I shut my eyes and tried to block the disaster that tomorrow might end up being from my mind. While I spent at least half of my time helping my brother with his dream, I spent the other half on my own. I was an aspiring romance writer, but today, the love just wouldn’t come.
My fingers flew across the keys, but I didn’t have any clear plan in my head. A few minutes later, I blinked when I read over what I’d written. Instead of romance, it was horror. And it was horrible horror at that.
Great. Just great.
At least I knew now why that was a genre I would never be venturing into. Choosing to focus on that silver lining that I’d actually managed to write something despite my frame of mind, I deleted what I’d written and tried again.
I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t a quitter. I also wasn’t a letdown.
Determined that I would get something that wasn’t horror written today, I opened one of the folders containing a manuscript I’d been working on before. Maybe today was the day I’d add another chapter to this story. And tomorrow? Tomorrow, I’d earn that hundred and fifty dollars with a smile on my face and a filter guarding my mouth.
I could do it all. Couldn’t I?
I snorted when I realized my inner pep talk was just being naïve now. There was no way I was going to make it through an entire day without saying something that offended one of his customers. All I could do was hope that I ended up offending someone who wouldn’t have to come back anyway.
An out-of-towner perhaps? It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was a lot more realistic than Rick’s.