ALLIE SMITH TOOK A DEEP BREATH and closed her eyes, trying to contain the temper threatening to burst through her calm facade. She glanced down at the plunger sitting in the clogged toilet and tried to decipher the legal gibberish of her lawyer on the phone.
“Wait, wait,” she said, pressing the plunger down and pausing. “It’s been a year. We filed this paperwork six months ago. It’s not my fault the man’s disappeared off the face of the earth.”
She tried to keep her voice down. The boys were all in school, but Loralie was only in kindergarten three days a week and today was Thursday.
“I realize that,” her lawyer said. “But he still has to be served with the paperwork. And since we don’t have his address, we have to show the judge that we’ve made every attempt to find him.”
“But he left me. And the kids. He’s the one who took off.”
“But you’re the one filing for divorce. If you could hire a private investigator—”
“I don’t have the money for a private investigator!”
“Then we have to wait.” Her lawyer sighed. “Allison, I know it’s frustrating, but he’s not coming around and harassing you or the children. He’s not draining your finances—”
“Because there are none.”
“I’m just saying, are you sure you want to proceed with the divorce when you’re having so much trouble serving him the papers? He’s sure to turn up at some point, so unless you have another relationship that you’re trying to proceed with—”
“Oh yeah.” She shoved the plunger down again and pumped, hoping the clog was too much toilet paper and not another toy. How many times did she have to remind her seven-year-old, Christopher, that you didn’t need a half a roll to be thorough? “Yeah, I’m burning up the dating scene here in the Springs, Kenny.”
There! She pulled up and the water began to drain down the toilet bowl. Not a toy. Thank God. It could have been way worse.
“That’s right,” she continued, “I’ve got men lining up at the door for this hot thirty-four-year-old chick with four kids. I have to beat them off with a…” She looked at the messy thing in her hands. “Plunger. It probably wouldn’t be all that hard.”
Allie set the plunger in the bucket to take out to the garage and wiped the sweat off her forehead with her forearm. It was fall, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it supposed to be cooling off?
The town of Cambio Springs may have been hidden in a quiet corner of the Mojave, but unfortunately, that didn’t mean it was sheltered from the relentless heat of the Southern California desert. The weather had started cooling off at night, but in September, the days were still sweltering. Happy weather for the bird and reptile shifting clans. Not quite so fun for the canines, felines, and bears.
Kenneth Dwyer was a lawyer in Palm Springs, and one of the many cousins she had in the sprawling wolf clan her mother had been born in. Though Allie was a fox and her mother long-dead, the family connections had proven true. Otherwise, she’d never have been able to afford Kenny’s hourly rate.
His voice lowered. “Listen, Allie, I think you should talk to Alex. Talk to him about hiring a detective. It would be fairly routine. All he or she would have to do is put together a report to convince the judge that we’ve met the requirements for a diligent search to find Joe. Once the judge is convinced, we can serve by publication and you’ll be able to proceed.”
She fought back frustrated tears. Alex McCann was another distant cousin, the alpha of the wolf clan, and even more than that, a close friend. The fact that he was already helping her pay bills was humiliating, but she couldn’t ask her dad to do more. She had two sisters. She wasn’t the center of the universe.
No, she was a thirty-four-year-old abandoned wife with four kids, two part-time jobs, and a load of debt she’d discovered after her ex-husband walked out the door when she and the kids were sitting down for meatloaf one night.
But hey, at least her house was paid for!
“Listen, Kenny—” Her voice broke. “I can’t…”
“We can wait,” he said. “Or I’ll see if any of my regular investigators have employees looking for license hours who might give you a lower rate. We’ll figure it out, Allie.”
She leaned out of the bathroom to make sure the sounds of Loralie’s favorite cartoon were still bouncing down the hall.
“I just want to be done with him,” she whispered. “I’m not hung up. I don’t care about getting married again. I just want to be able to move on from Joe. Close the door. Figure things out with the kids without all these questions hanging over our heads.”
“We’ll do it. It’ll happen,” he promised. “This isn’t going to last forever. But divorce is complicated, especially when kids are involved and you’re filing for full custody. Take a deep breath and focus on your family. Let me do my thing here and we’ll make it through.”
She took a deep breath and managed a smile. Choose to be happy. Just like the last fifteen years. Choose happiness and focus on the positive. She could do that. Allie was a professional optimist.
“You’re the best, Kenny. I owe you brownies.”
“You know I’m not turning those down.”
“Say hi to Amber for me, okay?”
“Will do. We’ll be back home next moon night, so we’ll probably see you then.”
Nights when the moon rose full were de facto holidays in Cambio Springs. When most of the town was populated by shapeshifters or the people who married them, full moons took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Even those who’d moved away to the more prosperous towns of Palm Springs and Indio for work would return to shift and celebrate with family. Canines and cats. Snakes and birds. Even the solitary bears occasionally lumbered out to hunt or fish under the moonlight before they retreated to their dens.
“Shit! Kenny, I gotta go. I’ll call you next week, okay?”
“I’ll let you know if I can find someone to help. Later.”
Allie just remembered she’d promised Ollie she’d come in early to help Tracey with the inventory at the bar. Ollie was the quietest bear she knew and one of her closest friends. And for the past ten months, he’d also been her boss. Though she needed the extra paycheck, the strain of working with him was beginning to make Allie wonder if money was too high a price to pay for friendship.
Ollie was constantly grumpy when she was around. He was sweet as pie with her kids and grumpy as hell with her.
The depressing thing was, she thought she knew why.
THURSDAY nights at the Cave weren’t usually busy, unless they had a band.
Tonight, they had a band.
They also were behind in inventory, since Tracey—Ollie’s head waitress for years—had been out sick earlier in the week and the delivery that was supposed to be there that morning hadn’t come in because of a break-down.
Ollie frowned down at the clipboard Tracey had handed him.
“I’ll put that ale from Mesquite Brewery on special,” he said. “We’ve got an extra keg from them. And then…” He frowned. “Push mixed drinks, I guess. And bottles.”
Allie’s mind raced. She knew they were low on some of their favorite drafts and the crowd at the Cave was definitely more of a beer crowd than a cocktail crowd. “Could we do an ice trough with longnecks by the entrance?” she asked. “Cash only? It’ll be quick. Lotta guys coming in after work would probably go for those just to cool off.”
Tracey nodded. “That’s a good idea.”
“Who are we going to get to man it?” he asked.
“I’ll call one of the weekend girls,” Tracey said. “See if they want to pick up some extra. Or Dani. I think she’s on break from school right now.”
“If Dani can come in,” he said, “call her. Pop said she needed some extra cash.”
Dani was one of the younger members of the bear clan and, like Tracey’s husband Jim Allen, worked at the Cave when she was able. The Cave wasn’t only one of the music hotspots in the high desert, but it was also the unofficial gateway to Cambio Springs. And for as long as anyone could remember, the Allen-Campbell clan had guarded that gate. Bears like Ollie and Jim quietly discouraged any outsiders from becoming too curious while they fostered the too-cool-to-care reputation of the bar.
It probably helped that both Ollie and Jim looked like hot bikers dreamed up in Hollywood. Jim wasn’t quite as tall as Ollie, but at six foot, he still packed a punch. He took after the Allen side more than Ollie, who was a lighter blend of African, Mexican, and Scots-Irish blood that made up most of the Campbells. Intricate tattoos painted both his arms and covered his chest and back. His face, if you didn’t know him, would be forbidding.
Ollie was a quiet men, but one that very few were willing to cross.
Because of that carefully cultivated reputation, his bar had hosted some of the most popular rock, alternative, and country bands in the last ten years. It was well known that the big man had some friends in LA who quietly steered bands his direction when they needed to toughen up their image.
Playing at the Cave and not getting shouted down by the crowd was an accomplishment. Just the Quinns—Cambio Springs snake shifters and general mischief-makers—kept Ollie and Jim busy. Not to mention the bikers and other wanderers that were drawn off the interstate and into the dark, wood-paneled bar. Word about a new band got out and the crowds came. The bands sank or swam on their own merit. Nobody did you any favors at the Cave.
“A beer trough will work,” Ollie said in a low voice. “Tracey, go call Dani in. I want her here at six to help you guys set up. Good idea, Allie.”
Tracey disappeared to call Dani, leaving Ollie alone with Allie. He crossed his arms and stared at the small stage in the corner where the band would be setting up in a few hours.
“You’re good at this,” he said. “The customers and stuff. Anticipating what they want.”
“Good idea moving you to nights.”
She nodded. “And I appreciate it.”
Ollie frowned. “You don’t have to… It’s fine. How’s it working out with the kids? With you gone at nights more.”
“Kevin’s my right hand. Doing great watching the younger three. My dad usually comes by for dinner.” She shrugged. “He doesn’t love me working nights, but he knows not to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“You’re good at your job. I’m not doing you any favors.”
“We both know that’s not true,” she said under her breath.
He took a step closer. “Al—”
“Ollie!” Tracey called from the back of the bar. “Dani can come in, but she wants to talk to you. Family stuff, I think.”
Ollie muttered something under his breath, but turned and walked to the back office without another word to Allie.
She let out a slow breath and watched him walk away, wishing the view wasn’t quite so tempting.
It wasn’t her fault, really. After fourteen years living with a man who equated kindness with weakness, Allie would probably be attracted to any man who was merely polite. And Ollie was more than polite. Despite his tough exterior, he was one of the kindest men she’d ever known.
And he was hot. Painfully, distractingly attractive in a way she hadn’t let herself admit for many, many years. Admitting her attraction to Oliver Campbell would have made her crazy when she was still tied to Joe.
Allie didn’t want to get distracted by his big shoulders and gorgeous beard and overwhelming hotness, but come on! She worked three nights a week with the man behind the bar, keeping an eye on her while she waited tables for some of the roughest guys in the desert. And Ollie took care of his girls. That feeling, combined with his looks, was enough to make any single mom go weak in the knees when she was used to being responsible for everything all the time.
But it was also ridiculous, because she was not the kind of woman Ollie was attracted to. Not even close. He kept things quiet, but she and her two best girlfriends, Jena and Ted, had gossiped plenty over the years. The women Ollie liked were all tall and dark and dramatically gorgeous. Nothing like her short “four kids later” body with flyaway blond waves and cheeks that never left elementary school.
Allie suspected Ollie knew about her ridiculous feelings, which probably explained the grumpiness. She did her best to hide it, but she must have done something to give it away. He knew her. They’d been friends since they were kids.
She had to get over it. An unrequited crush was not worth ruining a twenty-year friendship.
JIM leaned over the bar and shouted, “Do you want me to put Tracey on table five?”
She shook her head. Table five might have been irritating, but they were also tipping over twenty percent every round. If they were making a few suggestive comments, it wasn’t anything she wasn’t used to. “I’ve got it.”
“You give me the word and I cut ‘em off, honey.”
She gave him her most cheerful smile. “You’re the best, Jim.”
“Try to move them out before Ollie—”
She shook her head as the drummer broke into a loud solo. “What?”
“He’ll be back in five. They look like they’re moving along?”
She shook her head. “I told you; I’m fine. They’re not causing trouble. Just a little annoying.”
The crowd was electric, especially for the middle of the week, and Allie had to hand it to the alternative rock band from Orange County: they were good. Great rhythm, and a lead singer who seemed to be as popular with the guys as with the girls. Young people had flooded in from all over the desert, and the bar was filled with a twenty-something crowd instead of the usual mix of all ages. Cocktails had been unexpectedly popular, and Ollie had been forced to run to his house to break into the Campbell bourbon and rye stash.
Table five looked like they were more interested in picking up girls than listening to the band. She was guessing they were rich kids from LA slumming in the desert. They were dressed immaculately, even in the heat, with slick hair and carefully groomed facial hair they probably thought was “retro.” The four men seemed to be more amused by giving her a hard time then they were by the music.
“Hey sweetheart,” the leader of the little group asked. “When can we expect those Old Fashioneds?”
Allie eyed the tip of his glossy Oxford as it tapped impatiently. She forced a smile as she set down a round of shots Jim had comped them because of the wait.
“Sorry, guys. The owner is on his way back with some more rye. Shouldn’t be much more than ten minutes. They’re the first order up.”
She pretended not to notice the brush of his arm on her hip.
“You live around here?” he asked. “What time do you get off work?”
She tried not to laugh. “I’m pretty busy, guys.”
“Your name’s Allie, right? I’m Ryan.”
“Nice to meet you, Ryan. Enjoy the band!”
Allie got two steps away before she felt a tug on her apron string. She stopped when she felt the weight of it slide off her hips. It landed with a thunk, the small bills and change she’d collected landing at the smug man’s feet.
“Oops,” Ryan said with what someone had probably told him was a charming grin, still holding the dangling end of her apron. His buddies laughed. Her apron had landed on the floor, right between his spread legs, dollar bills and quarters rolling out.
Refusing to let them get to her, Allie forced a smile. “You guys are such gentlemen. Would you mind picking that up for me?”
“If I do,” Ryan said, “what do I get as a thank you?”
Nothing, you little asswipe. You’re the one who pulled it off in the first place.
“Guys, I’m not trying to spoil your fun, but I really don’t have time for this. I’m working.”
Allie could see table seven’s drinks sitting on the bar, and Jim was glaring at the table. She was now losing tips dealing with these Mad Men wannabes. If Ollie had been there, one of them would have already come out and given the men a warning. But with Ollie out, Jim was stuck behind the bar.
“Tell you what,” Allie said, leaning down to the arrogant man’s ear. “You can pick up my apron for me right now—” She heard the back door open and a moment later, Ollie walked down the back hall with a case of whiskey, Caleb Gilbert trailing behind. Finally. “You do that, and I’ll forget you’ve been a pain in my ass all night.” Allie looked up and glanced across the table at a younger man whose cheeks held a slight blush before she looked back at Ryan. “How’s that sound, sweetheart? Trust me. This is Oliver Campbell’s bar. You don’t want to mess with his servers.”
Ryan’s smile was tight. His eyes held hers. “Oh, I don’t think your thug boss wants to bother upstanding citizens like us.”
Another one of the men at the table was starting to look embarrassed. “Ry, let it go. She’s busy, and I want to listen to the band.” He moved to bend over and pick up Allie’s apron, but Ryan stepped on the hand that reached out.
“Ow! What the fuck, Ryan?”
He was still staring at Allie, a smile on his lips. “She can pick it up.”
Allie heard a thunk as the case of whiskey hit the bar.
“I warned you,” she said, crossing her arms as she heard Ollie stride silently across the floor. There was a lull in the music and the bar quieted, as if just realizing something was going on in their midst.
Ollie jerked his chin at the band and said, “Play.”
Immediately, the drummer picked up again, the guitarist stepped forward and the singer raised his hands, drawing the attention of the crowd.
Ryan had scooted back in his chair, crossing his arms and reaching for his drink as Ollie approached the table.
Ollie snagged the shot glass from Ryan’s fingers and put it on the table. “You’re done.” He turned to Allie. “They paid up?”
“Yeah. They settled up and then they pulled my apron off.”
Ollie scowled. “What are you, twelve?”
Ryan’s eyes flashed. “Hey—”
“Pick her apron up and get out of here.”
Ryan stood, deliberately kicking her apron under the table and scattering more of the cash.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Allie said.
Ollie didn’t say another word. He grabbed the man by the back of the suit and lifted him in the air.
“What the fuck?” Ryan yelped. “Put me down! Andrew, call the cops. Your bar is mine, asshole. My lawyer is going to have a field day with this.”
“Shut the hell up,” Ollie muttered, looking at the other men at the table with an impassive expression. “Any of you guys have manners? Pick up her apron while I go have a talk with your friend.”
The whole bar watched as Ollie walked a puffing Ryan down the back hall and the three men scrambled to pick up the money and stuff it back in Allie’s apron. The band, bless their hearts, continued to play.
The blushing one handed Allie her apron with a nervous smile while the other two got out their phones. Caleb wandered over from the bar.
“Allie, you okay?”
“Yep.” She smiled. “These gentlemen were just leaving me a very nice tip for making their neighbors wait on their drinks.” She looked over at table seven. “Sorry, guys!”
“No problem,” one shouted.
Another said, “Almost as entertaining as the band.”
One of Ryan’s silent friends was holding up his phone and glancing down the hall where Ollie and Ryan had disappeared. “Shouldn’t one of us call the cops? What’s that guy going to do to Ryan?”
Caleb hooked his hands in his pockets, his thumb behind the badge at his waist. “I am the cops. And Ollie was going to have a chat with him. Didn’t you hear?”
Allie didn’t have time for this.
She hustled to the bar and delivered table seven, then picked up empties on two before she took orders from the pool room. Stupid men and their stupid posturing. Her ex, Joe, was exactly the same kind of guy as that idiot, Ryan. Never knew when to just back down and let things go. Had to keep pushing until—
Tracey yelled her name just as she Dani came to grab her order pad.
“Go,” Dani said. “Tracey says you need to calm him down.”
“Ollie lost his temper on that idiot. I’ll cover your tables. Go.”
What alternate dimension was this? Who decided that starting fights with a grizzly bear shifter was a good idea? Granted, the stupid human didn’t know that Ollie was a grizzly, but he was clearly outmatched.
Tracey grabbed her arm as she headed down the hall that led to the bathrooms, Ollie’s office, and the door to the employee parking lot. “Try to get him calmed down. We’ll take care of the front. Caleb can help.”
When Allie burst through the back door, she saw Ollie standing over Ryan, who was on his knees.
“Go for it,” the bear said. “Stand up again. See what happens.”
His voice may have been quiet, but Allie could hear the thinly veiled rage. Ollie didn’t lose his temper often. Something Ryan said must have really set him off.
“Ollie!” He glanced over his shoulder and Allie saw how far gone he really was. Combined with the look of quiet rage was a split cheek that made Allie’s temper spike. “Did he hit you?”
“Sucker punch.” He turned and grabbed Ryan by the hair to pull him to his feet. “Apologize to her. Now.”
Tugging him to his feet brought the man’s face into the light. Ollie had been careful. There was only a shadow of a bruise by Ryan’s jaw and his lip was split, but Allie could see the pale skin and hunched shoulders that told her his ribs were more battered than his pretty face.
“Sorry,” the once-arrogant man said through bloody teeth. “I’m sorry. Didn’t… didn’t know about your kids or anything, okay? Just thought we were having fun.”
“Fun? You’ve got a messed up sense of fun, mister.”
Ryan watched Ollie, who hadn’t said another word. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was your girl, all right?”
“I’m not his girl,” Allie yelled. “And that doesn’t matter anyway.”
Ryan glanced nervously at Ollie again.
“What matters is, you don’t treat a woman like that. You don’t treat anyone like that. Learn some manners and don’t come back here. Ever.”
“Okay. I won’t. I promise.”
Ollie dropped him, and Ryan scrambled toward the front of the bar, kicking up dust in the cold light of the parking lot as Allie turned to Ollie.
She put a hand on his chest. “Let me see.”
She grabbed his chin to angle his head down, and he winced.
“Was he wearing a ring or something? How did he open up your cheek like this? You look like you might need stitches.”
“He was talking shit. I got distracted. I’ll go to Ted’s and have her patch me up.”
Her other hand rose to his shoulder and her fingers stroked the beard over his jaw before she could think. His shoulders were rock hard with adrenaline. Sometimes Allie forgot how big he really was. She barely came to his chest.
She ached. She wanted to slip her arms around his waist and lean into him. Press her face into his chest until he settled down and hugged her back. Make him laugh and smile and erase the awful wall that had risen between them. Allie could feel her heartbeat pick up as she leaned closer.
Without a word, Ollie grabbed her wrist and pulled it away from his jaw, looking back toward the bar as he said, “We need to get back inside. Talk to Caleb and make sure that punk doesn’t cause any problems.”
Humiliation colored her cheeks red as she dropped her hands. “Right. Sorry. It’s still busy. I’ll go back inside and get back to work. Why don’t you run to Ted’s house and have her look at your cheek? Caleb can help at the bar. Dani’s station has cooled off, so she can help on the floor. We’ll take care of it.”
He gave her a brittle laugh. “Organizing the world again, Alison?”
Ollie was the only one who called her Alison anymore. Not since her mom died. And he hadn’t done it in months.
She forced a smile past the burn of embarrassment and the memory of his jaw under her fingertips.
“Well, you know me. That’s what I do. Can’t turn off the mom after fifteen years, you know?”
“I guess not.”
Damn men with their damn inscrutable expressions. Allie tried not to run back into the bar. She headed straight for the women’s restroom and leaned against the door, pressing her hands to hot cheeks.
Get a grip, you idiot. Oliver Campbell is not for you.
Copyright 2015 Elizabeth Hunter