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…
Release date: June 1, 2021
Publisher: Jennifer Bernard
Print pages: 316
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Mischief after Midnight
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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