Chapter 1

              While most people go to a bar to socialize with their friends, the fact that there are fewer than a dozen patrons occupying The Spot on this dreary Friday night, none of whom I know, makes it the perfect place to unwind after a mind-numbing week.

Luke Combs plays over the speakers, and I drain the last of the beer from my pint glass until there’s nothing left but traces of foam. I hate everything about country music. The nasally vocals. The blatant overtones of God, and country. And love. It’s all bullshit. But my girlfriend Nic loves it. I can always tell when she’s going out for the night because she cranks Beautiful Crazy as loud as she can, as if Luke Combs wrote that song just for her.

She is beautiful, but even if she wasn’t that would be alright. There are worse things in life than being small-town pretty.

I raise my empty pint glass to signal Harley, the bartender. She shoots me a swift nod back.

“Where’s Nic?” she asks.

“Working.”

“Over at the Pioneer?”

I nod. The Pioneer is a truck stop just off I-5 where Nic waits tables six nights a week.

“Good tips on a Friday night,” I say, or so she tells me.

I met Nic on one of her rare nights off. I was sitting in this very spot when she and her pack of woo-woo girlfriends came crashing through the door. It was well past midnight, and they were at the end of their bachelorette party pub crawl. Sober, they wouldn’t have been caught dead here, but there was no danger of that. They were loud. Drunk. I sat at the bar, my muscles aching from a hard day’s work, about to pay my tab and head back to my rented room, when there she was. I don’t know where this thing between us is heading, if it’s going anywhere at all, but that’s okay.

I’m no longer the kind of guy who makes plans.

“How’s school?” I ask Harley and she flashes me a rueful smile.

“I’ve got an essay due Monday that’s kicking my ass, but other than that…”

              Behind the tattoos and the tough chick act, Harley Poe’s an old soul. Despite being named after her father’s dream motorcycle, she’s smart. Too smart to end up here shacked up with one of the local boneheads. She’s taking classes over at the college in the hopes of building a better life. We’re not talking Harvard here, but it’s a start.

Harley keeps a book stashed beneath the countertop so she can read on slow nights, and trust me, most nights are slow. I glance over expecting to find Stephen King. IT, or maybe Dr. Sleep. Something that’s been made into a movie, but instead, I spy a copy of The Tempest sitting beneath her pack of smokes. I shake my head with an appreciative grin.

William Fucking Shakespeare.

This girl, I swear.

Harley places a fresh pint on the soggy coaster in front of me.

“So, you’re reading Shakespeare? Is that a school thing?”

Harley looks surprised that I noticed. She shakes her head, her cheeks coloring a faint shade of pink.

“Read The Taming of the Shrew in tenth grade and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

              “Ha! Taming of the Shrew. Figures,” I say having no doubt that growing up in this small town, Harley would relate to the play’s fiery heroine, Kate.

              “You read any? Any of his plays, I mean.”

              I nod. There was a time when I read voraciously, but those days are also in the past.

              “What was your favorite? No, don’t tell me. Let me guess. Macbeth?”

Out damned spot.

              I take a sip of my beer and try not to flinch as the familiar line races through my mind, hitting a little too close to home.

“Why that one?” I ask Harley, deflecting.

              Harley’s gaze meets mine. I’m the first to look away, as if worried that she might glimpse a ghost from my past coming back to haunt me.

              “I don’t know. You’ve got an air of tragedy about you.”

I wave my hand. Manufacture a smile.

“You’re over thinking,” I tell her, but she doesn’t seem to buy it.

“Am I?”

The girl’s a little too smart.

I’m almost relieved when one of the local Neanderthals summons her.

“Sweet cakes! Get that fine ass of yours over here and fetch me another drink.”

Fetch. Like she’s a dog.

A fraction of a second before she turns around, Harley’s face hardens. She spins on the heels of her worn cowboy boots and strides toward him. He’s leaning on the other end of the bar. Glass empty. Full of swagger. Smiling at her as if he’s god’s gift.

I recognize him.

              Jett Brady. I mean what kind of an asshole names their kid Jett anyway, like he’s a martial arts star? His father, Phil Brady, is running for local office of some sort. I’ve seen his campaign posters plastered all over town, and his son is the spitting image.

              Jett smiles, showing off his very straight, very white set of teeth and I know this guy.

In another life, I used to be this guy.

              But Harley’s seems unimpressed.

              “Slumming?” she asks, reaching for his empty glass.

              “I missed you,” he says, mockingly.

The friend standing beside Jett sniggers. He’s got long hair and a horsey face. I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him before. He drives a hopped-up Dodge Charger. Yellow with black racing stripes, and a vanity plate that reads BAD ASS.

Dumb ass would have been a more accurate moniker.

              They’re soon joined by a third guy, who looks like his biceps have biceps, because dudes like that always travel in packs of three.

“Another double?” Harley asks.

              Jett stares her dead in the eyes. “How about a suck, bang, and blow?”

              Aw, shit.

Harley returns his smirk with a scowl, and like a bystander watching a train wreck, I can anticipate what’s coming next.

              “Would you believe I’m fresh out of Jägermeister?” Harley says.

              Jett continues, undeterred. “Okay then, how about a blow job?”

              “I’ll have one of those too,” his muscle-bound buddy says.

              “Make that a full round.”

              Harley hesitates for a moment, and I can tell she’s wondering what they’ll do if she refuses. Then she sighs. She’s smart enough to know that this is not a fight she can win. Inwardly, I seethe, hating that she has to put up with this kind of sexist bullshit.

With a slow shake of her head, she leaves the trio of idiots and pulls three shot glasses from the shelf. She pours the Amaretto in first, followed by the Bailey’s Irish Cream. Gotta hand it to the girl, she floats the Bailey’s into a layer like a pro. Then she tops each with a dollop of whipped cream.

              Without a word, she deposits all three of them on the bar. And because Harley’s the type of girl she is, she doesn’t just leave it there. She reaches for a tiny pink umbrella, the kind you’d put in a frou-frou cocktail, and stabs it through the dollop of whipped cream floating at the top of Jett’s shot glass.

              Jett smirks. He plucks the paper umbrella from his drink and tosses it carelessly onto the bar.

              “Aren’t you going to join us, sweetheart?”

              My hand clenches around the pint glass. Ignoring him, she walks down the length of the bar toward me, as if I can somehow protect her.

              “Aw, come on, Harley. Don’t be that way.”

              “I don’t drink on duty,” she shoots back, her eyes locked on me.

              “It’s just one drink. Shep won’t mind. He and my dad are old buddies. I can call him, if you’d like. See what he says.”

              Shep—Dwight Shepperd, owns the bar. Shep’s not a bad guy, but as a struggling business owner in a small town, he’s unlikely to alienate patrons over something he’d consider as trivial as sexual harassment. And Harley knows it too. Her head drops a fraction of an inch in defeat.

              “Assholes,” she mutters under her breath.

              A bout of raucous laughter erupts and the boys down their shots. Then Jett slams the empty glass onto the bar. The sound echoes like a gunshot. A challenge. Harley flinches.

              “Bar keep, another round.”

I can tell he’s getting off on this. Controlling the situation. Controlling her.

              Harley whirls on them defiantly, hands planted firmly on her narrow hips. “I think you’ve had enough, boys. Time to go.”

              “Enough?” Jett repeats, as if he can’t quite grasp the meaning of the word. “Aw, no, honey, that’s where you’re wrong. We’re just getting started.”

I groan. Close my eyes. I hate bullies.

              And that’s the moment when I know I’m about to do something stupid.