“Dunno, boss.” Aaron’s familiar voice rang out, and I spotted the three guys at a table with a blue-haired girl. “Are you sure this won’t change the first rule?”
“Don’t hit first—” someone else began.
“But always hit back!” The shout rang from almost every voice in the building. Eyes wide, I stared incredulously as Darius smiled like a proud parent.
“The first rule will never change,” he said. “After all, don’t forget our second rule.”
“Back to business. MPD has issued a few safety notices that—” His eyes turned and met mine.
I lurched backward, clutching my coke. As the doors swung into place again, his voice continued with barely a stutter, and no screech of chairs warned of a furious stampede to lynch me for eavesdropping. Retreating into the office, I sat my unopened coke on the desk.
Don’t hit first, but always hit back. What kind of rule was that? If this really was an Assholes Anonymous support group, they were teaching all the wrong lessons. I bit my thumbnail. He’d talked about GM responsibilities and what sounded like a regulatory body of some kind—that MPD thing. Maybe this was related to businesses or restaurants or something.
I put it out of my mind. Whatever the meeting was for, it didn’t matter because I wasn’t coming back.
I waited out the rest of the hour playing a game on my phone, though I did take a couple minutes to text Justin more details about where I was, just in case he needed to identify my body later. Shortly after eight, Clara appeared in the doorway.
“How was your break?” she asked cheerily. “Ready to go again?”
“Yeah,” I said heavily, not bothering to fake any enthusiasm.
Her forehead scrunched with what was either disappointment or worry, but before she could comment, I pulled myself together and smiled.
We returned to the front, and the atmosphere in the pub brought me to a halt just outside the saloon doors. Had Darius dosed everyone with laughing gas? Relaxed chatter filled the room, interspersed with joking tones and mirth. I blinked. Had to be drugs. No other explanation for the mood shift.
I got back to work, but it was a breeze compared to earlier. And though I would never call them friendly, the patrons’ antagonism and impatience had subsided. Either that, or they were afraid I’d drench them if they were rude. Even the creepy old man was reasonably polite, so I poured him a real drink.
The next hour slipped by, and between customers, I assessed the bizarre gathering. An ancient Chinese couple was talking to a petite woman with a short bob that screamed attitude, her platinum hair streaked with pale pink. Beside her was a guy with dirty blond hair and thick glasses who looked like he’d gotten lost on his way to a tech convention.
Another table held a prim businesswoman with designer sunglasses perched on her head. Across from her was a young man with magnificent cheekbones and hair longer than mine done up in elaborate braids like an elfin cosplay. An old lady wearing a knit cap and turquoise-framed spectacles was showing off playing cards to a younger woman with teak-colored skin and wooden beads decorating her hair.
And, of course, the three Wonder Boys. Aaron the redhead joker, Kai the exotic smooth-talker, and the nameless third one. They lounged at a table with a pretty young woman, her wavy hair dyed bright blue. At least they were leaving me alone.
I ducked into the kitchen for more ice and found Ramsey perched on a stool, reading something on his phone with a hairnet covering his goth locks. Filling my bucket, I hauled the ice back to the front—and groaned when I saw who was waiting for me.
“What now?” I asked Aaron testily.
He rolled his vibrant blue eyes. Kai and the other man flanked him, the former with his hands tucked in the pockets of his slim black jeans and the latter leaning casually against the bar.
“Well.” Aaron cleared his throat. “Even though meeting nights are on the house, we went around and collected some tips for you.”
I stared at him. “You … what?”
He pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and pushed it across the bar. “Don’t play dumb. You earned it, new girl.”
“My name is Tori,” I snapped. I really wanted to snatch that pretty stack of bills, but I still had some pride.
A second passed, then I stuffed the money in my apron pocket. Who needs pride?
“Thanks,” I added. “I appreciate it.”
As though offended by my suggestion that he’d done something nice, Aaron shot his nameless friend a scowl. “It wasn’t my idea … but yeah. I’m looking forward to hearing you insult Sylvia again.”
“Are you looking forward to another margarita facial?” I retorted.
He flashed me a laughing grin that—to my horror—made my stomach flip. Just a little. Very minor. When he wasn’t talking, the jerk was almost charming.
Aaron and Kai headed back to their table, but the third guy stayed put. “Could I trouble you for a coke?”
“Sure.” I poured him one and slid it over. “Was it your idea to collect tips for me?”
“Mmm,” he murmured vaguely. “Like Aaron said, you earned it. We aren’t the easiest bunch to deal with.”
I thought he meant Aaron and Kai, but then I realized he meant everyone—the whole weird lot of them. I glanced across the pub, then back to him. Even knowing it was there, the scar cutting across his features threw me off, but I didn’t hesitate when I met his mismatched eyes.
He smiled—not Aaron’s boisterous grin, but a quiet smile that exuded an infectious calm. And my stomach did another little somersault. Damn it.
“What’s your name?” I blurted.
“Ezra.” He offered his hand over the bar and I shook it. His grip was warm and strong, his palm calloused. “Thanks for putting up with us, Tori. I hope you’ll stick around.”
I pulled a face before I could stop myself.
“We’re not that bad, I swear,” he said with a laugh. “Anyone who can leave Aaron speechless will fit right in.”
Carefully scooping up his drink like he might spill it—not that it was overly full or that my bar wasn’t plenty spilled on already—he rejoined his friends. I watched him walk away, admiring the view. Three super-hot fit men, and one was actually nice. Not bad odds, I supposed.
The evening wound down over the next hour. Before I knew it, the pub had emptied, the patrons wandering out in twos and threes until it was just me, Clara, and Ramsey again. The quiet was almost deafening as I wiped tables and tucked in chairs. What a night. I was exhausted, and a heavy weight was growing in my stomach.
Time for another rejection.
I lifted my chin. Whatever. As much as I’d tried to control my temper, insulting rude customers, refusing to serve jerks, and standing up for myself while on the clock had been fun. I mean, most of the night had sucked balls, but throwing that margarita and shouting at Aaron had been satisfying as hell.
Sighing, I cleaned up the last few tables and as I returned to the bar, Clara burst through the saloon doors in the same haphazard rush as always. What could she possibly be hurrying over now?
“Tori! I was worried you’d left.” She slumped against the bar, almost knocking the soda gun out of its holster. “What a night. My feet are killing me.”
Her eyebrows knitted together. “How did your night go? What did you think?”
“Me? Uh …” My brain fizzled. What kind of question was that after the way I’d behaved?
“I know they can be unpleasant,” she said earnestly. “They’re just very protective of—this is their safe place, you know? Anyone new is an unknown entity.”
“Um … okay.”
“You did a really good job—and you didn’t ask me for help at all. Darius was impressed too.”
I could have used help more than once, but Clara had been almost as slammed and—wait. Did she say the general manager was impressed? “You were watching, weren’t you? Didn’t Darius see me throw a drink on those guys?”
Clara laughed. “I didn’t see it, but knowing Aaron, he had it coming. Kai and Ezra are almost as bad.”
“You’re not mad? You’re not throwing me out?”
“Throwing you out?” Clara frowned at me. “Of course not. I want to hire you.”
I braced a hand on the bar. “I’m sorry, but are you drunk?”
“Tori, you did an amazing job! I told you not to take any crap, and you didn’t. The last five bartenders stuck around for all of a week, but I think you can handle it.” She smiled encouragingly. “It gets better, I promise. Once they get used to you, you’ll be a member of the gang in no time.”
There was that word again. Gang. “Uh, Clara, don’t take this the wrong way, but … is this place doing, you know, criminal stuff? Because I’m not into that kind of thing.”
“Oh, no, no, we follow regulations, don’t worry.” She clasped her hands together. “What do you think, Tori? Will you give it a shot?”
What was this ironic twist of fate? A manager begging me to take the job instead of the other way around? “I’m not … sure.”
Nasty people. Weird gang stuff. Alarming meeting mottos. Dangerous part of town. There weren’t many pluses here.