Who the hell organizes a bar staff meeting at …
On a fucking Monday?
Harry Cooper had been many things: quiet, sentimental, perennially stressed, occasionally surly.
What he had never been was a cruel bastard.
Apparently, his brother was.
As the new owner of The Basement, the other Cooper brother had ordered every single staff member to be at the bar first thing so he could introduce himself.
I didn’t know a single thing about Harry’s brother (was he younger or older? Was he another paper pusher? Most importantly, was he going to be in my way?), but what I did know was that I already had very strong opinions about this very early and very ridiculous meeting.
I bumped into Devon on my way North Side, three stops from the bar. We’d both closed the bar last night at midnight, and now the smug bastard taunted me with his hot coffee and still steaming croissant. Devon was the best of the bar staff—he worked hard, was trustworthy, and weathered stress like nobody’s business. He was probably a little wasted at The Basement, although the one time I suggested he pick the cocktail for our weekly special, he just regarded me like I was a lost puppy and told me he was good.
“You look ready to murder someone,” Devon said, his warm smile curling around his cup as he took a sip. Damn him for looking so well-rested. His brown skin was practically glowing. “Is it sleep, or do you just hate the idea of someone else taking over your bar?”
Mid yawn, I huffed a laugh in response. “I could still fire you, you know.”
The train’s vibrations rattled through my bones, almost lulling me back to sleep. Devon wasn’t entirely off the mark. Four and a half years of working for Harry, and most of those spent running the place, could I really be blamed for feeling like The Basement was a little bit mine? And this new guy. His name might be on the lease, but this team? They were my team. My friends (well, mostly).
I wasn’t about to let anybody come in and push any of us around.
“You know anything about this guy?” Devon asked as we walked from the station.
Another yawn escaped me. I was used to a messed-up sleep schedule thanks to years of night shifts, but I hadn’t had a night off all week, and I was struggling to catch up. Another tick against Harry’s brother. “Not a thing.”
“Strange that Harry never mentioned him before.”
When we reached the bar, I was surprised to discover the front door was unlocked. It looked like the new owner was already here. Fuck. He was going to be a morning person, wasn’t he? I was not nearly caffeinated enough for this. “Is it, though? It’s not like he was here all that often. Or talked that much about himself.”
Devon shrugged and made his way behind the bar to get a head start on tonight’s prep. He really was the best.
As though our presence had kicked off a domino effect, the next five minutes were a steady stream of the rest of the staff arriving, but still no new guy. Curiosity was eating at me, so I poked my head into the back office, where Harry had always spent his time. Nothing. Where was he?
I bristled. It was beyond rude to get us all here at ass o’clock and then make us wait for him. I added it to my list of grievances.
Of course, like an omen, I found him greeting the team, shaking hands and smiling like a congressional candidate when I exited the office. I swear, if there had been a baby in the room, he’d probably have been kissing its forehead.
I crossed my arms across my chest and grumbled to myself. It wasn’t like I had woken up this morning planning to hate him, but something about his perfectly coiffed hair and pressed shirt made my skin itch. I’d met plenty of owners like this before, ego’s bigger than their brains (which wasn’t a high bar, to be honest), and I knew immediately he was going to be a problem.
Objectively, I could see the family resemblance. Same tall stature, same dark hair, same weirdly patchy stubble (was beard growth hereditary?). But everything about his manner was Harry’s opposite. Where Harry had been reserved, his brother was practically a spotlight.
Younger, too. Had to be. All bright eyes and a lopsided smile. A jawline that could cut glass. He stood completely at ease, despite wearing a suit amid a room full of t-shirts and jeans. Dark blue and paired with a crisp, open-necked white shirt. It must have been tailored from the way it fit him. And expensive.
I was absolutely not caffeinated enough for this.
He was shaking Devon’s hand as I approached. “Thank you, Devon. My brother told me you were his best employee.”
Jealousy lanced through me. I mean, he wasn’t wrong. Hell, I’d been the one to tell Harry that. So, why did it bother me so much to hear it?
“And I apologize. I didn’t catch your name.” He turned to face me, eyes quickly taking in my appearance. Jutting my chin up, I held myself straight, happy to find he only had a few inches of height on me.
Let him judge. I was used to the looks by now. People always made assumptions about my appearance; tight jeans and tees that accentuated my overly slender frame, thick blonde hair that trailed past my breasts, an exposed side shave which was currently decorated by a gold chain ear cuff.
“Tiff. Head bartender and manager.” I held out my hand.
“Our commander in chief,” Devon joked.
Whatever he thought, it didn’t show. “Ah, yes, Tiffany. I’ve heard about you.” His grip was firm, his skin surprisingly soft when I shook his hand. “Sam Cooper.”
My brain halted. He had “heard about me”? And what the hell was that tone?
At least I had a name now.
“‘Sam,” although I still had half a mind to call him “asshole,” got the room’s attention.
“Thank you all for coming in this morning. I understand that Harry ran things differently, but I wanted to make it clear that I will be making some considerable changes. First of all, I will be taking over all management duties starting immediately. This includes scheduling and inventory. If there are any days or times that you are unable to work, please let me know so that I can see how we might accommodate it. Additionally, I plan on being much more involved than Harry was, and I need you to understand that I am your boss and my word is final.”
What the hell was this guy’s problem? I was used to Harry being a bit of a stick in the mud, but his brother? That stick was shoved so far up his …
“Is there a problem?” Sam’s steely eyes were on me.
I jutted my chin in challenge. “No problem.”
“I apologize if I’m keeping you from something, Miss Young.”
Miss Young? I forced a smile.
Breathe. Do not punch your new boss.
“Not at all, Mr. Cooper.”
“Then I would appreciate your full attention.”
Do not, I repeat. Do not punch your new boss.
I never thought I’d miss Harry.
“Now, I would like to speak with each of you individually, so I will need everyone to please stay until I have gotten to everyone.” There was no avoiding his pointed nod in my direction.
It had been years since I’d been in church, and I was not what anyone would call religious (to my poor mama’s long-lasting disappointment), but Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, if this asshole thought he could walk in here and take over my bar, he was in for a rude awakening.
This was going to be a long-ass day.
“Asshole” moved into his office and started talking to people one by one. It became apparent that this was a calculated move, the new guy establishing his ownership of the bar like he was swinging his dick around.
Aware that my growing disdain for him was not good workplace policy, I texted Audrey, who, as my best friend for many years, had long since been on the receiving end of my tirades and would not blame me for complaining to her at this time of the morning.
Me: I hate him so much already
Auds: That bad?!
Me: The. WORST.
It didn’t scratch the surface of my irritation, but it helped.
Auds: Are you working tonight? I need to offload some elderflower gin from my new account.
Me: No and hell yes. In that order. Plus we can start wedding planning.
Auds: I only just got engaged, there’s plenty of time
Me: Only because you haven’t set a date yet! Also, not taking no for an answer
Auds: Fine. See you tonight. Take it easy on the new guy.
Easy. Hah. Right.
Devon nudged my shoulder.
“How are things with Hannah?”
I smiled; my girlfriend was a much better topic of conversation. “Good. She wants me to meet her parents.”
“Wow. Big step. Are you nervous?”
“I think Hannah is more nervous than I am.”
“Are you the first girlfriend to meet them?”
“No, that’s what’s strange. She’s been dating girls for years, but for some reason, she’s worried.” I’d tried to get Hannah to explain why last night, but she’d shrugged and changed the subject.
“Maybe because it’s more serious this time?”
And that thought shouldn’t be as worrying as it was. Because, while we’d been dating for four months now, would I call us “serious?” It was the longest relationship I’d been in for, shit, too long, and I cared for Hannah, but … But.
I couldn’t even pinpoint exactly what was stopping me from taking the next step. Hannah was gorgeous, we had a healthy sex life, and she’d been comfortable from the start about taking it slow (though that hadn’t stopped her joking that it went against lesbian law not to be living together already).
I liked her. A lot. We’d connected from the moment we’d met. Hannah was energetic, ambitious, with a sharp mind and a penchant for art and history. When we’d first started dating, we could lose hours in each other (fucking or talking), just enjoying each other’s company.
Yes, it wasn’t always easy to make it work (between my nights tending bar and her day job, our hours didn’t always line up), and Hannah could occasionally be unintentionally selfish, but she respected my independence, and there was more good than bad.
Still, something was holding me back.
Audrey had given me the same advice I’d given her barely a year ago when she had similar concerns about her “situationship” with Jackson (“It’s a leap of faith, Tiff”), but recklessly throwing myself into things had never been my issue (just ask my mama).
“Hey,” I said, changing the subject, “have you seen Riley yet?”
Indicating no with a shake of his head, Devon pointed to the bar. “I’m going to restock the speed rack. Is there anything else you need me to do?”
The ice would need to be replenished, but I’d rather wait until opening to do that. “Nothing that can’t wait until tonight.”
As I watched the others enter and exit the back office for their chats with Sam, I shot off a text to Riley to remind her of the meeting this morning. She’d become increasingly unreliable of late, constantly swapping shifts behind my back or showing up late. I was close to firing her.
Shit. Would I still be able to if it came to that? Smug Sam (and didn’t that have a nice ring to it) had made it obvious that he was in charge now (but maybe he’d like to whip it out and piss on everything just to make it really clear), so I could only imagine he wouldn’t love the idea of me giving anyone the boot, no matter how deserving they were.
Although … It might be nice not to have to deal with the fiddly admin stuff for a change. Let his royal smugness fight with everyone over penalty rates and tip allocation and getting nights off for their cousin’s dog’s birthday or whatever.
And … Ok. If I was going to be totally honest, I was starting to feel that itch. The one that prickled under my skin anytime I’d been in a routine for too long. And the last four and half years? That was a new record for me. Lately, I’d started to wonder, what next? I felt the familiar buzz of adrenaline when I pictured leaving to throw myself into something new.
And secretly (extremely secretly), I had hoped I could use the change in ownership as an excuse. Maybe it was the perfect time to move on.
Yeah, well, after meeting “sir asshole,” there was a fat fucking chance of that happening. Even if it was time, there was no way in frozen hell I was going to leave my bar, my friends, in the hands of this douche.
By the time it was down to Devon and me, I had decided on a few things. One, we needed a coffee machine in this godforsaken bar (was lack of caffeine a medical problem?). Two, Riley’s continued ignorance of both my text and this meeting had broken my last straw. And three, if Sir Smuggington the Third wanted to try my patience, he had absolutely achieved his goal.
Devon left with a short wave, leaving just me and the asshole. Like I was waiting to be summoned into the principal’s office. Which was ridiculous. I knew my worth to this bar. He would have to be out of his mind to get rid of me. But I couldn’t stop the flare of panic that lapped at my brain. My short nails began to tap rhythmically on the bar top.
What was he waiting for? An invitation?
Actually, what was I waiting for?
I walked across the empty space to his office, rapping a quick one-two on his open door (my mama gave me manners) but not waiting for a response before I entered and sat down (manners only went so far when you were dealing with a smug son of a bitch).