“Could I leave my résumé with you?” I asked, flipping open my folder.

“Clara!” someone shouted from the back. “Where’d you go? Oy!”

The glint of near panic in the woman’s eyes intensified. “Yes, yes,” she told me. “Just leave it. I really need someone, but I don’t have time to look at anything right now. Tomorrow—”

“Clara!”

“Coming!” she shouted over her shoulder. “I’m sorry—Tracey, was it?”

“Tori.”

“I’m swamped. People are arriving in less than an hour and the freezer broke last night and Cooper called in sick again—” A loud crash from the back interrupted her, followed by a man’s furious cursing. “Oh god, what now?”

She dashed back through the doors, leaving her paperwork. I winced sympathetically. I’d been in her shoes before—understaffed, everything going wrong, and what sounded like an event planned for the night.

As I laid my résumé on top of her folders, noises echoed out of the back—loud clatters and frantic conversation between Clara and the man. I studied the mess. Half the chairs were lying on their sides for crying out loud. Giving a mental shrug, I straightened the tables and picked up chairs. In ten minutes, I had the front of the house tidied up and ready to go. Nodding to myself, I returned to the bar and grabbed my résumés.

Clara reappeared, reaching for her folders. When she saw me, she jerked to a stop, brow furrowing in confusion. I pursed my lips. Awkward. I’d meant to be gone by the time she came back.

Eyes wide, she stared at the restored order. “You …?”

“Just helping out,” I explained hastily. “I’m on my way now. Good luck with your event tonight.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

I turned away, making a face at the cringyness, and hurried for the door.

“Wait!” Clara sped around the bar, my résumé in her hand. “Do you have bartending experience, Tori?”

“Not much,” I admitted as she joined me. “But I know my way around a bar, I learn fast, and I work hard.”

Clara nodded as she scanned my résumé. “You have no references.”

“Um … yeah.”

“Are you busy tonight?”

I blinked. “Tonight?”

“I know it’s unorthodox.” Her words tumbled together as she rushed to get them out. “But I’m slammed already and we’ll have a full house by six. If you can work a shift, I’ll pay you in cash at the end of the night—same wage as my last bartender.”

I brightened. A paid shift and a chance to prove myself without having to do the whole interview thing? “Sure, I’d love to.”

Clara deflated with relief. “Wonderful! Let’s get started.” She waved for me to follow her. “Tonight’s the monthly meeting and everyone will be here. Ramsey and I will handle all the food orders if you can take care of the liquor. I’ll help you out as much as I can. Once everyone has a few drinks, it’ll settle down, but six to seven will be crazy.”

She halted halfway around the bar. “I’m Clara Martins, by the way. AGM.”

Assistant general manager? Finally, some luck. I’d handed my résumé to the second-in-charge.

I shook her hand, then she led me into the back. Through the saloon doors was a cramped kitchen with stainless steel counters.

“Ramsey!” she called. “Get over here!”

A tall guy wheeled into the kitchen from the other end—thin, lanky, with black hair buzzed short on one side and the rest falling in spiky locks below his jawline. Chains hung around his neck, and he was wearing more eyeliner than I was.

“Ramsey, this is Tori. She’s interested in the bartender job, so I’m having her help out tonight.”

Ramsey’s mouth twisted. “Is that even allow—”

“We really need the extra pair of hands,” Clara interrupted. “And we can see how she meshes with the gang.”

She didn’t mean “gang” literally, did she?

“Suppose,” Ramsey agreed uncertainly. He gave me a look as though measuring how breakable I was. “Welcome to the madhouse.”

I didn’t get a chance to consider all the possible meanings of his welcome before Clara pulled me into motion. She gave me a top-speed tour of the kitchen, walk-in fridge, malfunctioning freezer, ice machine, and storage areas. Aside from a cluttered office, that was it. Not even a breakroom.

Ten minutes later, I was standing behind the bar with an apron in my hands as Clara zoomed off. Ramsey was prepping food in the kitchen, so I was officially on my own.

I tied the apron around my waist, overlapping the bottom of my white blouse and slim knee-length skirt. Good thing I’d worn my comfy sandals. I shot a quick text to Justin letting him know I’d be home late, then got to work.

First I wiped down every surface in, around, and behind the bar. I located and laid out the drip mats, then hauled a bucket of ice from the back and dumped it into the well. I checked the liquor bottles in the well, tested the soda guns, and located all the basics in the walk-in and dry storage.

With a few pointers from Ramsey, I found the garnish supplies and prepped lemons, limes, olives, mint, and parsley. I couldn’t find any garnish trays, so I stuffed them in highball glasses. As I was lining them up in the well, Clara rushed in. Was she ever not rushing?

“Oh, good, you’re ready, then?” She started tapping the touchscreen on the till. “Everything is on the house tonight, so all you have to do is log what you make.”

I hid my disappointment. Free drinks meant no tips. “What’s your policy on carding?”

“Oh, you don’t need to check IDs. We only serve members.” Clara rubbed her hands together nervously, her eyebrows scrunching. “When it comes to new people, they can be … but you’ll be fine! Don’t let them give you any crap. And I’ll be nearby if you have trouble. Just call me if you need help.”

Trouble? Maybe she had heard of my reputation after all. I plastered on a confident smile. No hesitation, not when this trial run could win me the job.

Clara returned my smile with one that was more anxious than pleased, then dashed into the kitchen, calling for Ramsey. I rubbed my damp palms on my apron. Setting up the bar was easy. It was the rest I didn’t have much experience with. Nerves twisting, I pulled up a webpage of drink recipes on my phone.

The big clock on the wall ticked over to five thirty. The place was still dead. I appraised the tables and dark walls. How many people would they cram in here? A broad staircase in the corner led to the second level, but Clara hadn’t mentioned it so I guessed it didn’t matter for my job tonight.

The front door flew open and I jumped.

Two guys walked in. I relaxed—they had beards, but not “biker gang” beards. One guy was average—dark hair, a touch of silver in his beard, mid-thirties—and the other was stocky and buff, with the sides of his head shaved and his blond hair combed straight back. Late twenties?

I smiled welcomingly as they approached the bar, but they didn’t respond in kind. Instead, they stared at me like I was a five-foot-seven weed that had sprouted from between the floorboards.

“Hi!” I chirped. “What can I—”

“Who are you?” the older one asked sharply.

“I—my name is Tori.” When their suspicion only increased, I added, “I’m filling in tonight to help Clara.”

As though I’d spoken the code word, they both relaxed.

“I’ll have a whiskey sour.”

“Bourbon on the rocks.”

“Right,” I said breathlessly, grabbing two rocks glasses and adding ice. The bourbon was easy, but I overdid the whiskey in the second drink. Oh well, he was getting his non-money’s worth. I passed them off, then added the two drinks into the system. When I looked up, the door was opening again.

Another man—fortyish—held the door open for a pair of guys in their twenties. The younger two made it to the bar first and—

“Who are you?”

What was it with these people? I wasn’t a damn trespasser. They were more territorial than teenagers in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

“I’m filling in tonight to help Clara,” I answered, testing my new magic phrase.

Again, they lost their antagonism and ordered drinks—easy ones, thank goodness. The older guy even smiled when I passed him his Old Fashioned.

I hadn’t finished adding their drinks to the tally before the next group arrived. Three girls in their early twenties, all very different blonds. One with pale hair in a wavy bob, one with long golden locks, and one with her shoulder-length hair dyed a hideous banana yellow.

Again, I smiled, and again I got glared at until I assured them via the magic phrase that my repulsive presence in their precious pub was only temporary. Two ordered sodas but banana-hair wanted a Long Island Iced Tea that took several minutes too long to make. By the time I passed it off to her, another ten people had gathered behind the girls—all squinting suspiciously at me.

I gulped down my nerves and offered the magic phrase again. I didn’t whimper, I swear.

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