Mischief after Midnight - Jennifer Bernard - E-Book

Mischief after Midnight E-Book

Jennifer Bernard

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Beschreibung

A sizzling standalone in the Lost Harbor, Alaska series


Bartender Toni Del Rey is the quick-witted queen of the Olde Salt Saloon, famous for trading barbs with grizzled fishermen and putting rowdy customers in their place. Independent and fearless, she’s only ever lost her cool over one man—the childhood crush who got away. These days she sticks to the F’s: friends, fun, and fu…well, you know. But now Bash is back, and more crush-worthy than ever. Worst of all, he just bought the Olde Salt, which makes him her brand-new boss.


Bash left Lost Harbor long ago to become a professional fighter—and to forget his nightmarish childhood. He’s only back to return a favor, but when he sets eyes on Toni, he may never want to leave again. His best friend’s little sister has gone from tomboy to tempting, from mischievous to maddening—a fact he can’t ignore while they work side by side at the Olde Salt. But between Toni’s fierce independence, his reputation as “Bad News” Bash, and a few deep dark secrets, they’re hardly suited to anything lasting.


 


Then again, you never know what a little Mischief after Midnight will lead to…

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Mischief after Midnight

Jennifer Bernard

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

About the Author

Also by Jennifer Bernard

One

Although most Lost Harbor residents thought of Toni Del Rey as the quick-witted queen of the Olde Salt Saloon, she did, in fact, have a boss. The actual owner of the saloon was a wildly eccentric frontier widow named Sally Buchanan.

Rumor had it that Sally, one of the early settlers of this tiny Alaskan outpost, had left her husband to freeze in a subzero blizzard because he kept singing “Sweet Caroline” after she’d told him to stop eighty-seven times. Sally never denied it.

Toni was almost completely sure that was pure legend.

Sally swooped into town a few times a year to check on things, but other than that left most decisions and responsibilities to Toni.

Most. Not all.

“This old shack is going on the block, kiddo, one way or another,” Sally told her in the cluttered back office of the Olde Salt. One cowboy-booted foot rested on the opposite knee. Toni studiously kept her gaze in the zone where she had no chance of seeing up her boss’ skirt. Sally had once informed Toni that underwear was for Cheechako weenies, so Toni wasn’t taking any chances.

It took a certain personality to stand up to Sally, and luckily Toni had the knack. The key was to dish it out just as hard—something she’d learned from her brother’s friends. The same thing worked with the rowdy fishermen who filled the Olde Salt every night.

Some people claimed that Alaska was a man’s world, but not if Toni had any say in it.

“I can’t hardly believe it, Sally. One trip to Barbados and you’re ready to walk away from all this?” She swept her arm around the rough-hewn space. In the winter, cold air whistled through the shingles and occasionally snow would drift in. “You always swore they’d have to carry you out on a pallet.”

Sally chuckled and took another drag from the electric cigarette that was part of her decades-long effort to quit smoking. “Things change. Even at my age.”

Toni narrowed her eyes at her boss. Sally looked different, and not just because of the light tan she’d acquired in Barbados. It set off her white hair, which she wore cut short on the sides and curly on top. There was a new gleam in her eyes.

“What’s changed? What aren’t you telling me? Are we losing money?”

Sally glared at her. “Didn’t you read the damn financial statement when I emailed the offer?”

“Don’t you pick a fight with me. Something’s up. Why are you doing this?”

Sally sat back and gave a hearty belly laugh that rocked her big bosom. “That’s why I’ve always liked you, kid. You’re fearless and you don’t back down to no one. It’s like you’re my own daughter, if I ever had one. Okay, here’s the thing. I’m in love.”

Toni’s mouth fell open. Of all the bombshells Sally could have dropped, she hadn’t seen that one coming. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Met a hot hunk of man in Barbados and we hit it off. We’re getting married. He doesn’t want to live in Alaska, so bye-bye Olde Salt.”

“But…” Toni closed her eyes briefly, almost as if that would reset this entire conversation. “You always said that men weren’t worth the bother.”

Sally wagged a finger at her. “I said any man who wants to get with you, make sure he’s worth the bother.”

“But you also said they usually aren’t.”

“Ain’t that the truth. Men are fine, in their place. In bed, if you know what I mean.” Sally let out a cackling, infectious guffaw. “This one got me. He got me good, Toni.”

Toni was still too stunned to laugh along. She’d always admired Sally’s independent spirit. She’d looked up to her and the way she answered to no one but herself.

And now she was leaving the Olde Salt and getting married?

“I hope they don’t know Sweet Caroline in Barbados,” she muttered.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Congratulations. He must be really something.” She could hear the doubt in her own voice.

Sally gave her a shrewd look. “I know what I’m doing, kiddo. Maybe you don’t believe it’s possible—love, I mean—but then again, you don’t know everything. But you do know the Olde Salt, so you get first crack at the place. Did you make up your mind? I need a decision now because I got someone else teed up if you don’t want it.”

Toni steeled herself. Ever since Sally had emailed her with the offer, she’d thought about it long and hard. She’d talked it over with her brother and her closest friends.

Jessica had consulted her crystal and told her to go for it.

Maya had said, “Hell no. Do you need me to slap some sense into you? Because as police chief I might be able to get away with it.”

Chrissie had tossed alternatives at her like candy, since she wanted the two of them to be business partners in a new brewery.

She’d even called her parents, who had retired back to Chile. They were opposed to anything that would keep her in Alaska instead of joining them in Santiago. Since she barely spoke Spanish, that wasn’t in the cards.

Tristan, her older brother, hadn’t said much because he was still recovering from a brain injury from a fishing accident. All he said was that he’d support whatever choice she made, and if she needed funds, just ask.

In the end, she’d had to make the decision herself. And now she had to deliver the news to Sally.

“I’m sorry to say that it’s a no,” she told the older woman. “It was a hard decision. You know I love this place, but I’m not sure I want it forever. It would take all my savings, and my brother’s savings, and I have some ideas I’m working on with Chrissie Yates and—”

Sally cut her off. “No need to explain. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you.”

Toni let out a relieved breath. Sally didn’t seem nearly as disappointed as she’d feared. She’d hated the thought of letting down her boss and mentor.

“So who’s the other person you have in mind to take over?”

Sally squinted into the upper far corner of the room, as if she was gazing at an ocean horizon instead of a cobwebby ceiling. In her weathered face, laugh lines fanned from the corners of her eyes. Hard to believe she was almost eighty. “Don’t want to say until it’s further along. Might jeopardize it.”

“Hm.” Now Toni was wildly curious. “No hints at all? Is it someone from Lost Harbor? It isn’t some outside corporation, is it?”

She hated the thought of an outsider parachuting in and changing everything. Someone who didn’t understand Lost Harbor might make Old Crow pay his tab, that sort of thing. If anything could make her purchase the Olde Salt, it would be the need to protect her regulars.

Sally spit into the old copper bowl she used as a spittoon. “Hell no, I ain’t selling to no goddamn corporation. You can count on that, kiddo.”

Toni’s tension eased. Not that a corporation would even want such a ramshackle piece of frontier history, but still, it was good to know she wouldn’t have to deal with a flood of businesspeople in suits and ties.

“I’d ask one favor, though.” Sally took her ever-present Swiss Army knife from her pocket and ran it under one of her fingernails. Frontier manicure, she always called it.

“You got it, boss.” Toni was so grateful that Sally wasn’t upset by her decision that she’d promise her anything.

“I know you got those other ideas you mentioned, and I don’t expect you to stick around here forever. But if you could stay until the new owner knows his way around, I’d appreciate that. You know more about the operations than I do.”

“His?”

“Huh?”

“You said ‘his’ way around. Is the new owner a man?”

“Kiddo, don’t jump the gun here. There ain’t no new owner yet.” She wiped the blade of her knife on her sleeve, then clicked it back into place and shoved it into her pocket. “But I think you’ll be happy. And that’s all I’m saying on that.”

Toni knew that tone. More questions would be pointless. “Well, until this mystery man takes over, I have a few things I need decisions on.”

“Shoot.”

“The men’s bathroom needs a new toilet. It got cracked last week, don’t ask me how.”

“Put a damn honey bucket in there and call it good.”

“I would, but there’s this thing called a health code now.”

That triggered a rant about the old Wild West days when no government entity existed in Lost Harbor. Toni waited her out.

“Next item. Do you want to sponsor the Midnight Sun Run this year?”

“Are you doing it again?”

“Of course. Gotta defend my title.”

“Sign us up. But I want our name big and bold on the banner. Not like last year.”

“I get it, but I also understand why they wouldn’t want the name of a saloon front and center in their marketing.”

Sally waved a hand in dismissal. “Do what you can. What else?”

“We need a new dishwasher. The human kind.”

“Well, hire one, then.” Clearly, Sally was coming to the end of her patience for business talk.

“I have a candidate in mind, but it might ruffle some feathers around town.”

“Why?”

“Her family are Russian Old Believers. The Volkovs aren’t too crazy about their daughter working in a bar.”

“How old is she?”

“Eighteen. She can legally work here as long as she doesn’t handle alcohol, thanks to that restaurant designation you got us.” They served one item: fish sandwiches that no one ever ordered. But it was enough to qualify as a restaurant.

“Then ruffle them feathers!” Sally chopped a hand through the air. “That’s the kind of feathers that need ruffling. I hired you, didn’t I?”

Yes, she had, and Toni’s parents hadn’t been happy about it. They’d hated the idea of her working at a seedy waterfront tavern. They still didn’t understand why she liked it. But they also didn’t understand why she liked to swim at night, or do the ice bucket challenge in January, or stay up until sunrise playing darts, or any of the non-traditional things Toni did.

“I’m spoiling for a good town ruckus,” Sally continued. “We used to have them on the regular back in my day.”

Uh oh. That sounded like the start of yet another rant.

“I think that’s it, then,” Toni said quickly. “I’d better get back to work. I left Ralphie Reed in charge of the bar and that never ends well. He just ends up flirting with everyone.” Toni stood up to go. “Any idea when we’ll know about the potential sale?”

“Shouldn’t be too long.” Sally sounded vague as she tapped out something on her phone. Toni wondered if she was texting with her new fiancé.

Sally had a fiancé. It felt like the end of an era. As if the Statue of Liberty had abandoned her pedestal and asked a tourist on a date. Toni felt almost…abandoned.

“Well, congratulations again on the new man, Sally. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“I never did either.” Sally glanced up, a wide smile softening her lined face. “But it don’t change none of my lectures, mind you. Most of the time, you’re better off without a man.”

“And most of the time, I don’t have one.”

They both laughed, Sally’s hearty boom echoing off the walls. Toni was really going to miss her one-of-a-kind boss.

“You make me proud, kiddo. You’re an independent woman. That’s how it should be. Do what you want, bed who you want…”

Toni hurried back to work before Sally could say anything else that would be considered super-inappropriate in any normal workplace. At least she assumed that was the case. She’d never worked in a “normal” place.

The bar was looking even less normal than usual.

In the brief half hour she’d been meeting with Sally, Ralphie had created a mess. A beer bottle had gotten knocked over on the countertop. The spill was already threatening a pile of bar napkins. The container of cut-up limes had gotten upended. At one end of the bar, her fishermen wore various expressions of stormy dissatisfaction, while at the other end Ralphie serenely gazed into the dazzled eyes of a tourist.

Oh, and the cash register drawer was open.

Toni swung into action. With one hand she grabbed a towel and tossed it onto the spreading puddle of beer before it could reach the napkins. With her other hand, she righted the lime container. And with her Converse-clad foot, she kicked closed the cash register.

“Ralphie, you’re fired. Everyone else, what can I get you? Who’s been waiting the longest?”

The thirsty fishermen talked over each other in a mad rush to get their orders in. She held up a hand and instantly they all fell silent.

“Let me guess. The usual?”

They all answered things like, “Yes ma’am,” and “Make mine a double.” Since she knew what each of her regulars drank, she didn’t pay too much attention. Anyway, they’d take whatever she gave them and be grateful. She had no unhappy customers at the Olde Salt, or if she did, they kept it to themselves.

Besides, something else had caught her eye. A newcomer stood a few feet away from the bar, outside the overlapping circles of light cast by the old ship’s lanterns suspended over the bar top. From the looks of it, he was a muscular man, with the confident posture of an athlete, but she couldn’t see much beyond that.

He clapped his hands in a slow, appreciative rhythm. “Nice work.”

His voice rang a distant bell. She knew him from sometime in the past.

She gave an ironic curtsy, oddly pleased by the compliment. Sometimes it felt like people around here took her for granted.

“That’s worth a drink,” she told him. “Not a free one, but a drink.”

“Good. I’m glad you aren’t giving away the booze.”

Why would he be glad about that?

She shook it off and busied herself pouring out a shot of rum, a tankard of Shipyard Ale, a double finger of Scotch and a Tanqueray and Sprite—the standard orders of the fishing crew. She kept an eye on the Shipyard tap while she poured the rum. “What’ll you have?” she called to the stranger.

“Bartender’s choice.”

“Yeah? I have a hundred-and-fifty-year-old Macallan’s I’ve been dying to open up. Fifty bucks a shot, is that a problem?”

“Bring it on.”

“I’m kidding. The only thing that old around here is the plumbing.”

“And the owner,” Bennie Thompson interjected with a snort. She plopped his shot in front of him.

“Hey now,” she warned him. “No disrespect.”

“Not true.” The stranger came a step closer.

“What’s not true?” She pushed back the handle of the Shipyard tap just in time, then slid the nearly overflowing tankard toward Deke Armstrong.

“The thing about the owner being old.”

She finally stopped moving and glanced his direction with a frown. Was he related to Sally? A long-lost family member she knew nothing about? “How do you know?”

Wait. Stop everything. The world came to a crashing halt as Toni suddenly realized why this man’s voice was familiar.

Because it belonged to her first and only impossible crush. The only man who’d ever made her lose her cool. The boy she’d been secretly in love with from the age of thirteen until…she wasn’t sure when. Her brother’s best friend and mischief collaborator, always up for getting into trouble. The boy who’d inspired her first orgasm even though he’d been nowhere near at the time. The boy who’d witnessed her most humiliating moment. The boy who’d inspired her to take up martial arts like him.

He’d excelled at fighting so much he’d made a career of it. Gotten semi-famous. Won titles. Hadn’t returned to Lost Harbor since.

“Bash Rivers? What are you doing here?”

“Well, that’s the funny thing.” He held up his cell phone. “I just got the word. Looks like I’m the new owner of the Olde Salt Saloon.”

Two

Would it be rude of him to snap a photo of Toni’s expression? It was a priceless mix of horror and…well, more horror. Bash restrained himself and tucked his phone back into his jacket pocket. “Hi, Toni. You look like you could use a drink. It’s on me.”

Finally she snapped her mouth shut.

Meanwhile, he was still adjusting to all-grown-up Toni Del Rey. His memories of her mostly involved a skinny kid who could work a dip net as well as a grown man. She was still on the slender side, but he wouldn’t call her skinny. She had real curves now.

He’d noticed as soon as she’d appeared from the back office like a graceful warrior angel. The dark hair that always used to get in her eyes was cut in an extremely flattering short-and-wavy style that showed off her cheekbones and made her eyes—mossy green mixed with shining brown—look huge.

Or maybe that was due to the shock of his appearance.

And his announcement.

Bash came closer and glanced up and down the bar. The crusty old fishermen were listening avidly, but the blond guy at the other end was still locked in with his girl. Lip-locked, at the moment.

Toni flung her arms in the air. “What’s going on today? It’s like everyone’s lost their minds. Does anyone else have any bombshells they want to drop?”

“I caught a gray cod with a face like a mermaid,” said one of the customers. “And then I—”

Toni held up a finger. “Rhetorical question. Shh.” She turned back to Bash. “Bash, cut the crap. Is this a prank? Are you recording this for Tristan or the town Facebook page?”

He shook his head in amusement. A prank. He’d forgotten about all the mischief they used to get into. It seemed so long ago. “It’s real. Sally just texted me the final offer.”

She blinked at him. He noticed that her lips were more full than he remembered. Then again, she’d only been fifteen the last time he saw her, his best friend’s little sister, and he’d paid no attention to her lips.

“Is she expecting you now?”

“She is, but I have a few minutes.” He took a seat on one of the vintage leather barstools.

“Good, because I have a few questions. Do you still want that drink? Owner drinks for free. Or at least Sally did.”

“I’ll take whatever’s on tap. I’m not picky.”

With that fluid, efficient stride, she moved to the beer taps and pulled one at random. “Well, I am picky, especially when it comes to my employers. I have very high standards.”

Toni brought him a glass tankard of ale, setting it down in front of him without fully meeting his eyes. Something was off here. He’d expected her to be pleased to see him. They’d practically grown up together, after all. Maybe she’d actually wanted to buy the place after all?

“Are you having second thoughts? Sally said you had right of first refusal but you said no. Nothing’s set in stone. I haven’t signed the papers yet.” He took a careful sip of the ale. Even though he’d put his UFC career on pause, he was still cautious about what he put into his body, especially anything that might affect his alertness. That was how he’d learned to survive: stay on guard.

Toni shook her head, looking mystified. “It’s just so freaking sudden. I just met with her. What if I’d decided to buy it myself?”

“That’s the thing about Sally. She’s very sharp about people. She told me you’d never go for it. And she knew I would.”

“But why?” Her fine dark eyebrows drew together. “Are you looking for a place to put all that prize money?”

Definitely, something was wrong. He remembered how furious Toni used to get when he did something like steal the hockey puck from her during a scrimmage on frozen Trumpeter Lake. She’d been plenty fast and strong, but since he and Tristan were three years older, they always had an edge.

Was this the same thing? Had he swooped in and stolen the metaphorical hockey puck from her?

He leveled a glance at her over his mug of ale. “Come on, Toni. What’s up? Why are you mad about this?”

She finally met his eyes, hers flaring with green sparks. “I’m not mad. Why do you think I’m mad?”

She was definitely mad. He lifted one eyebrow.

“Okay. You could have warned me. Us,” she added quickly. “Lost Harbor in general. I’m sure some people will be happy to see you. Like Tristan.”

Meaning…not her. That was weird. He’d always gotten along well with Tristan’s tagalong little sister. Sure, there had been that one time, a couple weeks before he left, when he’d blown up at her. But that was because she’d taken a ridiculous risk for a dumb prank.

A customer signaled her for a drink and she hurried away to take his order. But he could tell by the set of her shoulders that she was still focused on him and their conversation.

As he sipped his ale, he surveyed the eclectic collection of locals and tourists who populated his new investment. The Olde Salt had always been a hardcore fishermen’s hangout—the first place a crew returning from a fishing trip stopped. Sometimes, half of their payout would be gone in that first night. Buying a round for the entire bar was a tradition.

In fact, there used to be a bell that hung over the bar. If you rang it, that meant everyone in the place got a free drink—on you.

The bell was gone now, because Toni had staged a protest and convinced Sally to remove it. She was concerned for the young fishermen who blew all their money on liquor and never saved up.

Sally had told Bash about it, with a mixture of irritation and pride. “Gotta warn you, Toni will be a pain in your backside. But she’s worth it. Best to get her to stick around if you can.”

The way things were going, that might be harder than he’d imagined.

“Hellllo, handsome stranger,” a woman said in his ear. He startled and looked around to meet the bright smile of a woman whose black hair was piled on top of her head like a cinnamon roll.

“Handsome” seemed like the wrong word, considering his broken nose and the scar that slashed through his left eyebrow. But he’d take it.

“Hello, beautiful,” he told her. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“How dare you. Okay, fine.”

He signaled to Toni, who was suddenly looking his direction again.

“You know I’ve been waiting years for this moment?” he told the woman.

She blinked at him, revealing sparkly blue eye shadow. “You have?”

“Ever since you tore up the Valentine I sent you in eighth grade and then stomped on the pieces.”

Her eyes slowly widened as recognition dawned. “No way. Bash Rivers?”

He grinned broadly. “Trixie Tran.”

She flung her arms around him. “Bash Rivers. Oh my goddess, it really is you. You know perfectly well I only trashed your Valentine because I was mad at you because you didn’t invite me to the eighth grade dance.”

“How was I supposed to know that? I was an idiot boy.”

She drew back and plopped onto the stool next to him. “You’re not a boy anymore. Still an idiot?” A saucy wink came with her question.

“Most likely.”

Most definitely. Why else would he have bought this damn place?

Well, because he owed Sally Buchanan. She’d taken care of him—mostly under the radar—when his family imploded. If she needed him to take an old saloon off her hands so she could have a new life, so be it.

Toni left her other customers and came to take their orders. Once again, he was struck by how graceful she was. Lithe and supple in her movements. She’d always loved swimming more than anyone he knew. Maybe that was her secret. He imagined her in a wet suit and got a little hot under the collar.

No. No no no. Toni was practically his little sister.

“Hey, Trix. How’s business?” she asked his new drinking buddy.

“Still slow. I don’t know why I bother opening in May. Who wants ice cream when it barely gets above fifty?” She turned to Bash. “Toni is my best customer, actually. Too bad I never charge her.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “How does a person get that deal?”

“A person trades drinks for ice cream cones,” Trixie explained. “I suppose other trades can be considered. For old times’ sake.” She gave him an exaggerated, goofy wink.

He turned to Toni. “You trade drinks for ice cream?”

Toni’s face flushed, but she lifted her chin in a way that brought back lots of memories of childhood mischief. “Got a problem with that?”

“Not yet.”

“Meaning you will as soon as you sign those papers?”

“Papers? What papers? What’s going on here?” Trixie looked back and forth from Toni to Bash as if she was watching a tennis match.

Toni held Bash’s gaze. “Haven’t you heard? Bash is buying the Olde Salt.”

“What?” Trixie climbed onto her knees on the stool and clanged her wine glass against one of the ship’s lanterns. “Listen up, losers!”

Bash met Toni’s eyes and saw his own “uh-oh” reflected in hers. He hadn’t even signed the contract yet. This was Lost Harbor’s infamous grapevine on steroids. And it was Toni’s fault. He hadn’t spilled the beans; she had.

Toni got it right away.

“Trixie!” Toni grabbed onto Trixie’s pink polka-dot skirt and hissed at her. “Keep your damn mouth shut or you’ll never drink here again.”

Trixie’s mouth snapped shut. She glanced down at Toni, obviously testing her seriousness. Toni glared back, then made the “I’m watching you” gesture, pointing two fingers from her own eyes to Trixie’s.

No one around here messed with Toni. That much was clear.

Honestly, it was pretty hot.

Everyone in the Olde Salt was now staring at Trixie, still poised with her wine glass about to clink the hanging lantern.

“Spit it out!” yelled one of the fishermen.

“‘Sup, Trix?” asked Ralphie Reed.

Bash held his breath. He sensed Toni’s tension as she waited to see what Trixie would do.

“That’s it.” Trixie shrugged. “Just wanted to watch a bunch of losers listen up.”

To the sound of boos, she climbed back down to the normal stool-sitting position. She drained her glass. “Can I get a damn refill?” she grumbled. “Honestly, Toni, you didn’t say anything about it being a big secret.”

Toni snatched her glass and disappeared with it.

“It’s not official yet,” Bash told her. “Toni shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Yeah well, she was probably mad.” Trixie rested her elbow on the bar and surveyed him with a curious expression.

“She does seem a little mad about it. Not sure why. Got any ideas?”

Trixie mused on it for a moment. “She’s used to running this place and she probably doesn’t like the idea of having a boss. Sally’s hardly ever here.”

“I’m not sure how much I’ll be here either.” He hadn’t made any final decisions about his UFC career,. He was ready for something new, but was the Olde Salt Saloon the answer or just an exit ramp, as Sally had called it?

“Did you say you might not be around much?” Toni reappeared with another full glass of burgundy for Trixie. “Why didn’t you mention that before?”

Bash shrugged. “I need to check out my new investment first.”

She lifted her chin high. “And? What do you think, oh lord and master? Does our humble establishment meet with your approval?”

And…there was that Del Rey sarcasm he remembered.

“Maybe.” He glanced around the place. “It could probably use some extra attention.”

“Excuse me?” Toni demanded.

And…she was just as fun to tease as ever.

“Oooh.” Trixie whistled in warning. “I think that’s my cue to get back to my ice cream scooping. Stop in any time, Bash. I’ll treat you to my special. Midnight Delight.” She gave him a sassy wink, then sauntered away.

With the words “midnight delight” hanging between them, Bash met Toni’s fiery gaze. And then something unexpected happened.

His cock tightened.

Oh damn. He had no business finding Tristan’s little sister so attractive.

He cleared his throat. “Midnight delight, huh? Remember those hot fudge sundaes we used to love?”

“Don’t change the subject,” she said sternly. “What’s your plan? Are you going to stay and muck things up or get back to your superstar life?”

“Why do you think I’d muck things up?”

“Didn’t you spend half your childhood getting me into trouble?”

“I thought I spent it getting you out of trouble.”

They both laughed, and damn, it felt good to be here with her. Spunky tomboy Toni. All that fun spirit she’d always had, with a sexual punch thrown in. Wow.

“I think I’d be a pretty good boss. I’ve been taking business classes the last couple years. Maybe you should give me a chance.”

She cocked her head at him. With her all-black outfit—black sneakers, skinny black jeans, clinging black ribbed top, with a bar towel tucked in her waistband, she looked like a bartender ninja. “I don’t know. I like my bosses the way I like my teenage acne. Mostly gone.”

He snorted. “Good one. Okay, so what are you saying? You’re leaving?”

“Haven’t decided yet.”

“You want a raise? You got it.”

“I don’t need a raise. I mean, I’ll take it. Maybe. If I stay.” She seemed almost flustered as she wiped her hands on the bar towel.

“Okay. Well.” He gave up on trying to figure out what was going on with Toni Del Rey. She used to like him okay, as far as he knew. Maybe she would again some day. “I hope you stay. Let me know. I’d better go find Sally.”

“She’s in the back office.” Toni waved her hand at a door in the shadowy far corner of the establishment. “You remember where it is, right?”

Of course he remembered. It was right next to the room with the old coal furnace where he used to sleep sometimes. Sally had put a cot in there for him. A safe haven from all the tumult at home.

He pulled out his billfold and plucked out a couple of twenties. “This should cover my bill, right? And Trixie’s?”

Toni nodded and scooped the bills off the counter. “Very generous. To yourself.”

“Not the owner yet,” he reminded her as he rose to his feet. “So where’s Tristan living? He’s my next stop, if he’s ready for visitors.”

Tristan was another reason he’d come back. He needed to check on his oldest and best friend.

Toni’s expression softened at the mention of her brother. “He’s okay for short visits. He’s back home now. Remember Nanny McBride’s old house? He bought that. You can usually find him there. I’m sure he’d love to see you. Actually...”

“What?”

“Well, he’s had a tough few weeks. I bet he could use some time with his best friend.”

“That’s what I’m here for. That and saving Sally Buchanan’s new marriage. I’m just a goddamn guardian angel.”

She smiled at him—a real, grateful, genuine smile—and it made him feel like a new man.

“See you soon, Ant.”

And boom, there went her smile. Gone at the sound of the childhood nickname she’d always hated. Why the hell had he let that come out of his mouth?

She gave him her back and stalked down the length of the bar toward a newly arrived fisherman. He watched her go, his gaze dropping to the cute round ass under her tight black jeans.

He cursed softly as he pushed away from the bar and headed toward the door to the back office. Sally had warned him. A pain in your backside.

She hadn’t mentioned that Toni would be causing him other discomfort as well. The more sexual kind.

Three

How many times had Toni yelled at Bash about that damn nickname? She could distinctly remember more than a few.

Age eight. Sledding on Wolf Pack Hill. The time when she challenged Bash to a sled race and he hit a stretch of extra-slippery ice. “Ant! Ant! Get out of the way! I can’t stop this thing!”

She’d had to veer into a snowbank, from where she’d spluttered, “Don’t call me Ant!”

Age ten. At the hockey rink, where her quickness and smaller size meant she could occasionally slip past the bigger boys. “Ant! Head’s up!”

She’d fielded the puck from Bash, then turned and slammed it into the net. “Don’t call me that,” she’d yelled at him instead of celebrating the goal.

Age twelve. Her own backyard, where she and Tristan and Bash dared each other to see who could climb the tallest tree.

“Ant! Your mom’s looking for you.”

“I’ll punch you in the face if you call me that again.”

Not that she ever could, because Bash knew from an early age how to dodge a fist.

Age fourteen. The boardwalk, as she was putting on her goggles before a swim.

“Hi Antonia! Where’s Tristan? I got his bait for him.”

“He’s talking to Old Crow. And stop calling me Antonia.”

“Have it your way, Ant.” A grin as he loped past with his new muscles and his bronzed skin and his bucket of bait.

“I hate you so much,” she’d muttered at his strong back, crisscrossed by the straps holding up his Helly Hansens.

Then later, in bed, staring up at the ceiling…I love you so much.

When had her crush started? She couldn’t really pinpoint it. It was more like a growing awareness. Even though he got into fights all the time, he was the nicest of her brother’s friends. He always included her in the fun—the dares, the challenges, the pranks, the general mischief.

He covered for her when she broke her mother’s rule about no swimming in the harbor. He got suspended for thumping a boy who kept dropping snowballs down her shirt. He taught her a few fight moves and let her practice on him.

“What’s wrong with being called Ant?” he’d asked her once while they were all eating ice cream cones on her family’s fishing boat.

“I’m not an insect!”

“Ants aren’t just regular boring insects. I read this thing about ants, that they can lift twenty times their own body weight. Also they fight to the death. That’s pretty rad.” He’d swirled his tongue across the melting chocolate. “It’s better than my name.”

“What’s wrong with the name Bash? It’s so cool.”

“It’s short for Basher. My dad picked it because he wants me to beat people up. It’s a cursed name.”

Bash’s father was horrible to him, everyone knew that. But Bash mostly picked his battles. He was a defender from bullies, the guardian of their little crew, the one who always took the heat.

Everyone always expected Bash’s fists to get him into trouble. No one had predicted his wildly successful career.

Toni shook off the memories buzzing around her like annoying summer flies.

God, what a hopeless fucking crush she used to have on Bash! No one else had ever had that kind of effect on her. She’d made damn sure of it.

She ran a hand down the front of her neck, feeling the wild pulse in her throat. Bash had been in the back office with Sally for an hour, and she still wasn’t back to normal.

How was she going to handle working with him? She might melt into a puddle of goo right in the middle of the Olde Salt floor.

Don’t be silly, she lectured herself as she carried on with the usual tasks of a random Tuesday night in early May. That stupid crush is long gone.

Correct. That crush was history. Whatever she was feeling now, well, that probably had more to do with the fact that Bash Rivers had grown into a walking poster boy for the benefits of martial arts for physical fitness. She hadn’t followed his career as closely as Tristan had. Generally she tried to tune it out when people talked about Bash. It didn’t happen often. The world of professional mixed martial arts was very far removed from Lost Harbor.

Of course the locals were proud of him, but he didn’t have the global fame of someone like Padric Jeffers, who’d become an international rock star. Padric was the most famous of all Lost Harborites. Bash was maybe…fifth. One of her regulars had placed second in a World Beard Championship; that had sparked a lot more excitement than anything Bash had accomplished. Then there was the woman who’d been on Survivor for a season. Alison Raines had competed in the Iditarod, coming in second one year. And of course there was Olson Yates, who’d invented a form of spray cheese.

So sure, Bash Rivers was cause for some local pride, but nothing too extreme. She’d been able to slowly let her crush go, even though her heart had been in smithereens after he left town. And he’d never even guessed.

Then he’d walked into the Olde Salt looking like…that. Like a freaking model for black leather jackets and broken noses and shaved heads. With those deep dark eyes. Damn. No wonder Trixie had flirted with him two minutes after he sat down.

She would have too, if he was anyone other than Bash. Since that time in her life, she’d never let anyone touch her heart again. She was an independent woman who liked men plenty—in their place.

The reminder of Sally’s words made her laugh to herself.

But seriously. Her determination to stay independent had never been seriously tested by any of the men she’d dated. Now Bash was back, in all his broken-nose glory, and every cell of her body was drawn to him just like in the old days. Even worse, he was her boss. He could potentially be in her face every single day at work.

This could be a total disaster.

Sally had asked her to stick around for the transition, but she hadn’t specified how long. She could handle the high-octane hotness of Bash for a few days, couldn’t she? Toni Del Rey had come a long way from that girl with a crush on her brother’s best friend.

But just in case, she had a plan B. Technically, it wasn’t even a plan B, more of a plan A. Opening a new brewery with her friend Chrissie was the whole reason she’d turned down the chance to buy the Olde Salt. Maybe she could kick things up a gear.

The next morning, Toni hopped in her pickup and headed for “Yatesville,” a hundred acres of forested waterfront property whose most spectacular feature was a decommissioned lighthouse perched on a bluff. Chrissie had inherited it from her eccentric inventor grandfather and had begged Toni to join her in transforming the place.

On her way out of town, Toni swung by the drive-through window of a tiny coffee shack where one of her karate students worked. The thing was barely bigger than a tollbooth, painted purple, and Shane had to prop his textbook on his knees to study between customers.

She handed him the old-school steel thermos she always carried around. “Fill me up with the high-octane stuff.”

“You got it, Queen.”

She sighed, since her students had been calling her that ever since she’d explained the meaning of her last name— “royal.”

“Hey, have you seen Katerina Volkov around? She missed the last class.”

“I saw her at Eller’s buying thread or something, but she was with her mother. She didn’t talk to me.”

Around her family, Katerina grew a lot more reserved. The Old Believers stayed close to their own community, generally. Not that they were hostile in any way; they were just protective, in Toni’s experience. They spoke Russian and wore traditional clothing. Tunics and beards for the men, long dresses and head coverings for the women. Toni thought of them as the Amish of Lost Harbor. They tended to be very religious, with many holidays that seemed to require entire weekends in church. A few of the men made their way into the Olde Salt now and then, although they didn’t drink alcohol. Instead, they just swapped fishing stories with the other fishermen.

Katerina was the first member of the Old Believers who had ever come to Toni’s self-defense classes. She was an adventurous young woman struggling to find the balance between her curiosity and her family. Toni had been shocked when she’d asked her for a job at the Olde Salt.

“Will your family be okay with that?”

“They’re getting used to my rebel ways,” Katerina had assured her.

But then she hadn’t shown up for class in two weeks, so naturally Toni was concerned.

“Okay, thanks, Shane. If you see her, tell her to call me, would you?”

“You could ask her boyfriend.” Shane jerked his head at the truck behind her in the drive-through line. “He comes here all the time and acts like a dick.”

Toni glanced in the rearview mirror at the two-ton truck with the custom headlights. The man at the wheel wore mirrored shades and an impatient expression. He didn’t look Russian, so maybe he was another of Katerina’s rebellions.

“I think I’ll pass on that one. See you in class, Shane.”

Sipping from her thermos as she drove, she wondered if she should talk to Bash about Katerina. If Toni left, would the girl be okay working for a stranger? Would the rest of the staff?

The Olde Salt had one full-time bartender—Toni—and three part-timers, two table bussers and a dishwasher. They all shared sandwich-making duty. None of the part-time bartenders had any interest in more shifts. That meant Bash would have to find a replacement or do the job himself.

Not her problem.

She’d stay for a few days, then move on. Bash could flirt with Trixie and do that smoldering thing, and none of it would bother her. She’d be busy with her happily independent life and her brand new brewery.

Four

Or maybe not.

When Toni reached Yatesville, her heart sank at the sight of the construction crew hard at work on the lighthouse.

Chrissie’s master plan involved turning the lighthouse into a Museum of Homestead Life and Alaskan Oddities, and adding an upscale brewery where tourists could enjoy the spectacular views after their dose of history. That was going to be Toni’s domain—a brewery she could run exactly as she chose.

But from what Toni could tell, none of that dream was even close. The crew was ripping out some rotting boards above the foundation of the lighthouse. With its whitewashed sides, black trim and angled glass windows, it looked like a wistful penguin gazing out to sea.

Chrissie stood on a slope overlooking the lighthouse, hands planted on her hips, her blond ponytail flying in the wind like a warning flag. Chrissie knew a lot about construction herself, having been raised like a frontier kid on this very property.

“You look like you’re about to confiscate those sledgehammers and do it yourself,” Toni told her as she reached her side.

“I’m tempted. I don’t want them touching any of the original plasterwork or trim. That stuff’s iconic.”

Toni smiled to herself. Chrissie had just returned to Lost Harbor after years away, and now she was throwing herself into it a hundred percent.

“Guess who’s back? In related news, when can I start work out here?”

“Huh?” Chrissie dragged her attention away from the crew and refocused her sparkly blue gaze on Toni. “Back up. I feel like I missed a few steps here. Who’s back?”

“Remember Bash Rivers?”

“Tristan’s friend? Of course.”

“He showed up at the Olde Salt last night. Surprise, he’s buying the place.”

Chrissie’s eyebrows quirked. “Why? Isn’t he some kind of bigtime fighter now? What would he want with a decrepit old tavern about to fall off the boardwalk?”

“Hey.” Toni always came to the defense of her beloved Olde Salt.

“Sorry. Just saying.” Chrissie caught something out of the corner of her eye and yelled down at the crew. “Watch that six-by-six, it’s load-bearing!” She turned back to Toni. “Okay, so I’m still not connecting the dots here. You don’t want to work for Bash? I thought he was a friend. Did something happen between you?”

Toni tugged the inside of her cheek between her teeth. She’d never told any of her friends about her hopeless crush on Bash. But maybe she’d assumed that everyone knew about it; that she’d carried around a giant neon flashing sign that said “I love Bash.”

“No, nothing happened.”

Chrissie gave her a close look, but Toni didn’t say any more. She’d gone this long without revealing her crush, why start now? It was embarrassing, even humiliating, to pine after someone who barely knew you existed except as a pesky tagalong.

Except when he’d rescued her after that silly dare had spiraled out of control…

But she didn’t like to think about that long-ago incident. Some things were best buried deep.

“You probably don’t want to have to train a new boss,” Chrissie said, letting her off the hook.

“Exactly. It seems like good timing for me to focus on the brewery. Bash likes competition. Let’s give him some.”

“I like how you’re thinking. Unfortunately, we won’t be much competition when the brewery looks like that.” Chrissie gestured toward the bare patch of land next to the lighthouse, where they intended to put the brewery. Situated right next to a piece of Lost Harbor history, with sweeping views of Misty Bay—it was perfect. Or it would be, once it existed. Chrissie intended to move one of her grandfather’s yurts into the spot. Very authentic. Very unique. Very much still in the planning phase.

Toni sighed.

“Also, I don’t have funds for salaries yet. Not until the water filtration sale goes through.” Her grandfather had invented a system that produced the sweetest, purest water—and made the best ale. Hence the brewery plan.

“I have some money saved. I don’t need a salary.”

Chrissie laughed and gave her a little hug. “You know I’d love to have the company, but there isn’t much to do until we get the yurt moved in. That’s a few weeks away. Don’t you think you’re rushing things? I know how important the Olde Salt is to you. And Bash was Tristan’s best friend. It can’t be that bad working for him. Especially if you know it’s temporary.”

All very good points.

“Don’t we have to nail down details and shit like that?”

“Sure. Let’s schedule some planning sessions. In the meantime, you’re welcome to come herd construction workers with me. Some of them are pretty hot.” Chrissie winked, even though everyone knew she was completely in love with Ian Finnegan, whose only power tool expertise involved surgical instruments.

Toni glanced down at the crew. “Carl, Biggie, Roger, D’von. I know them all. Good guys, but no thanks.”

“Not worthy?”

“One’s married, one has a long-time girlfriend, I dated one a few years ago for about a week, and one of them told me he only dates women he can beat at darts. Needless to say, I crushed him at darts.”

Chrissie rolled her eyes. “Good old-fashioned machismo, still alive and well.”