Brody swung his bare, size thirteen feet over the side of the bed, lifted his arms above his head and turned to the right, then left. The accompaniment of snap, crackle, pop filled the room.
Naked and feeling gloriously free, he walked into the bathroom for a quick shower. With his head much clearer, he wiped the steam off the mirror and eyed the slight red mark on his temple from the ridiculously low showerhead.
The foreign two-day-old growth of beard staring back at him managed to look neat enough for him to keep. Why not, he thought. Being uncomfortable was the least of his problems right now.
Grabbing his phone, wallet, and key card, he walked out of the hotel room in search of some food.
In the elevator, he finally looked at his phone and noted the time. Guess it was going to be lunch, so he headed toward the bar.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. She was well past her prime, trying hard to hide it and failing miserably.
A quick glance at what was on tap had him changing his mind from his normal drink of choice. But when his eyes landed on the stock of liquor reflecting against the mirrored wall, he resigned himself to the cheap stuff. “Vodka and tonic.”
“Coming right up,” she said, her voice a bit raspy, her eyes sending more his way than he wanted to acknowledge. “You want some food with that, sugar?”
“Sure,” he said as he watched her pull a stained sheet of paper out that he supposed passed as a menu.
“What are you in the mood for?” she asked, placing the drink down in front of him. A cheap glass that wasn’t cleaned to his taste either, but not dirty. Spending as much time as he did in a bar, he took note of everything that wasn’t up to his standards.
“A burger and fries,” he said, finding that the least offensive thing at the moment.
When the greasy concoction was slid in front of him, he wished he was back home and could just walk into the kitchen and get his brother Aiden’s specialty fish tacos, made with a slaw marinated in one of his brother Mason’s summer IPAs. As pissed off as he was at everyone right now, he couldn’t get them out of his head.
After washing down the last of his fries with his drink, he threw cash on the bar and walked out to the ocean breeze awaiting him.
Spring on the Outer Banks was busy, and the beach was filling up rapidly with tourists and kids, blankets and umbrellas.
Toeing his shoes off, he picked them up and carried them as he made the lone walk along the shore. Breathing in the salty air mixed with the sweet smell of artificial coconut cleared his head. Doing all the things his siblings told him to do. Too bad he didn’t agree with them.
An hour later, covered in sweat, he undressed and climbed in the shower once again, trying to cool off.
The ringing of his phone had him cursing as he hit his head on the showerhead for a second time stepping out of the tub.
With a towel wrapped around his waist and water dripping on the sterile white bath mat, he pressed the answer button and heard his sister Ella’s voice echoing off the walls on speaker.
“Did I wake you?” she asked.
“No, I was in the shower,” he said, grabbing another towel and running it over his short dark hair and neck.
“So you did just get up? Good, you need some sleep.”
“I’ve been up for hours,” he said, his tone grouchier than normal. “Just got back from a walk on the beach.”
“Even better.” When he snorted, she laughed. “Brody, we’re worried about you. You’re working too hard and too long. This was for your own good.”
“Whatever,” he said, still not happy about being here.
“You’re the only person on the face of this earth who complains about being told to take a week off. What’s wrong with you?”
“When was the last vacation you had?” he asked. “That any of you had?”
“Not the point,” she answered, her voice light but firm. “We aren’t biting each other’s heads off like you.”
“I’m always like that,” he said.
“Not this bad and you know it.”
Sometimes the truth did hurt. “I’m coming home tonight. I can’t stay here another day. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“We figured you’d say that, so I was elected to make this call. If you step foot in Charlotte before Sunday afternoon, you can’t come to the bar, the restaurant, or the brewery.”
His jaw tightened. “Who’s going to stop me?”
“The staff have instructions to block you from entering. Without you firing them, too. I’ll change the locks if I have to, Brody.”
“What the hell, Ella? Is this some kind of a joke?” He whipped the towel off and started to briskly wipe the steam off the mirror. He needed to do something other than stand here, shell-shocked. How could his family betray him this way?
“Nope. Orders from Mom. Take it up with her if you want.”
His shoulders dropped. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Ella and his mom were outnumbered, five testosterone-bearing behemoths in the house to two estrogen-toting pipsqueaks. Somehow, though, estrogen always seemed to win in the Fierce household.
“See you Sunday,” he said, wondering what the hell he was going to do with himself for the next three days.
“We love you, Brody. Even Cade, but next time you need to keep your fists to yourself. You’d been warned before.”
Brody cracked the barest of grins. “How’s his eye?”
“Not as bruised as his ego.”
“Where was he sent to cool off?” Brody asked.
“He’s fishing with Dad for two more days. Consider yourself lucky you got a solo timeout. He’s getting the lecture.”
Lucky, sure. There was no luck in being the leader of the Fierce Five.
Aimee Reed walked into Fierce on Monday at ten. She was here to meet Ella Fierce, one of the three Fierce siblings who’d interviewed her last week. At the time, she didn’t know they were quintuplets, but after some research on her new employers she’d found a backstory on their business.
Fierce, started by Gavin and Jolene Fierce thirty-five years ago, had grown from a small pub-style restaurant to one of the hottest spots in Charlotte.
Brody ran the bar and ran it well. It was named one of the top five hot spots for two years running.
Aiden, the head chef, had culinary skills straight from abroad that made people’s mouths salivate when they walked in the door.
Mason, the chemist, ran the brewery that popped up four years ago around the corner from the pub.
Cade handled all the marketing and branding for the company that’d grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years.
And Ella ran everything and everyone else, it seemed.
Their parents—well, it was said that when the kids turned twenty-five, they handed the keys over and decided to enjoy their retirement. Good for them.
“Aimee,” Ella said, extending her hand out. “It’s good to see you again. Let’s get your paperwork started and I’ll walk you around. For the next two days, I’m going to have you shadow Mason in the brewery, studying the brews and what their makeup is, then spend a day with Aiden in the kitchen. It’s best to know the menu well so you can make suggestions for those at the bar during the day.”
“I noticed that most of the menu I saw online had your beer in it.”
“It does. Aiden is a whiz in the kitchen. Every time I blink, he has a new special featuring Mason’s latest experiment. The two of them have gotten extremely close in the last few years and their work complements each other well.”
“Ratings are very high for Fierce.”
Aimee was still stunned she got the job. Waitresses, bartenders, and sous chefs battled for a spot here. Yet she got offered the job and wasn’t sure why. Not a great way to exhibit confidence, she mentally scolded herself. But sometimes who you knew was better than what you knew…and there was no way she was going to blow this.
“They are,” Ella said, nodding, sending Aimee a glance that clearly stated she should feel lucky to have gotten the job. The Fierce Five, as they were referred to in everything Aimee had read, were a cocky group of five siblings running the show in downtown Charlotte. They didn’t just set the bar for their competitors, they blew it up with dynamite.
Aimee followed Ella through the closed bar, past the formal seating of the restaurant, into the kitchen where prep work was underway for the lunch shift, and up a set of stairs to the offices. Several offices, mainly looking empty at the moment.
She took a seat at the conference table where she’d interviewed just a short five days ago. In front of her were a laptop and a few sheets of paper.
“Let’s get started on the boring part, and then we can move on to the fun stuff. Mason knows we’re coming.”
“When will I start working with Brody?”
Aimee thought it was odd that the person who was going to be her immediate supervisor not only wasn’t there to meet her, but his name hadn’t been mentioned.
Ella laughed lightly, a sound that didn’t match the look in her eyes. “We’re going to try to push that off until Wednesday. Maybe Thursday, if we’re lucky.”
Ella reached a hand over and patted hers, then grinned. “You see. He doesn’t know about you yet.”
“You did what when I was gone?” Brody shouted at his siblings Wednesday morning during their weekly meeting.
“You should have filled that position six months ago when Felix left and you know it,” Ella said.
Brody looked around the room at everyone. No one was making eye contact with him right now and that just burned his ass even more.
“I had it covered,” he argued. “We don’t need another manager at the bar. I run the bar.” He turned to Aiden. “You run the restaurant, so you hire your own staff, right?”
“Yeah,” Aiden mumbled.
Next, Brody turned to Mason. “Do you hire your own staff in the brewery?”
Mason looked at Ella, then back to him. “Of course.”
“I won’t bother to ask you, Cade. It’s just you and your assistant. But we know you hire for yourself. So the question is, why wasn’t I given the same courtesy?”
“Take it up with Mom,” Ella said boldly, then crossed her arms, smirking the way Brody hated. The same smirk she sent him and his brothers when they were younger and they knew they’d never win. The same smirk he and his brothers learned to master—a trait of their mom’s.
“Shit,” he mumbled.
“That’s right,” Cade said, regaining his voice. “It was Mom’s idea.”
“Do you want a matching shiner?” Brody snarled.
Ella stood up. “Enough. Do you both need another timeout?”
“We aren’t five, Ella,” Cade said, snapping back. Good. Someone else was losing their temper, Brody thought.
“Then don’t act it,” she said.
“How many barf bags did you fill on Dad’s boat?” Brody asked Cade.
“Screw you,” Cade said, standing up.
“That’s enough,” Aiden said, in the same voice that controlled his kitchen—like a nun holding a ruler above your knuckles just waiting for a chance to snap it down. “The order came from Mom. That’s the end of it, Brody. The same order that decided you got a solo timeout and Cade got to go fishing.”
Brody snorted. His mother knew everyone’s weakness and she played it well. Brody hated being alone, hated any type of solitude. That was why he did so well managing the bar. He could talk to strangers day in and day out. The louder the better. Cade had the weakest stomach of them all and could never stand the smell of fish, let alone being on their father’s boat deep-sea fishing.
“So you all knew about this?” Brody asked, looking around.
His eyes landed on Aiden, then Mason, seeing the guilt and the looks that the two of them were sending each other. There was a time his brothers didn’t keep secrets from him. A time they banded together against any foe.
“I found out on Monday when I got back,” Cade said. “So don’t get pissy with me. It was done when I was gone.”
That didn’t make him feel any better since that was two days ago. “So when does he start?”
“She,” Ella said. “Her name is Aimee Reed and she started on Monday.”
From bad to worse. The person was already working and he’d never seen her. Where the hell was she?
“How is that possible?” Was he really losing his mind and his focus like his family thought?
Ella took her seat again. “Aimee and I met early Monday before you came in and we did her paperwork. She spent Monday with Mason in the brewery. Yesterday, she spent the day with Aiden in the kitchen.”
“And today?” he asked. “Am I going to get to meet this person that you thought should be my day manager? Or do I need to get permission from Mom first?”
“Cut the sarcasm,” Aiden said. “And don’t be a jerk to Aimee. She knows her stuff and you need the help.”
He didn’t need his siblings telling him how to run his end of the business. “I’ll determine what she knows and doesn’t know.”
“What bug crawled up your butt?” Mason asked.
Of his brothers, Mason was the quietest, Aiden the most talented, Cade the most outgoing, and he was the loudest. That Cade was keeping his lips sealed meant he was trying not to get on anyone’s bad side.
“I don’t know,” Brody said. “Maybe it’s the fact you’ve all been on my case for months. I took my punishment like Cade, but came back to find that you all thought I couldn’t do my job. That you all think I need some kind of a babysitter.”
“No one needs a babysitter,” Ella said softly.
“That’s funny coming from the person who seems to be making all the decisions right now.”
Ella laughed. “I’ve always been the one to make the final decisions. You guys all have your branches and you just run with it and never worry about the messes you create or the work it takes to make things happen behind the scenes. That has always fallen on me.”
“You love it,” Cade said.
“Believe what you want,” Ella said calmly. “But in this case, I’m cleaning up the mess you’ve made, Brody.”
“There’s no mess. The bar’s revenue has increased steadily at ten percent for the last six months. Explain that mess to me.”
Ella sighed. “Yes, the bar is profitable. Yes, Cade is bringing in more attractions and live music to help that. Yes, Mason is making more brews to help sell at the bar. And yes, Aiden’s food is sought after, also helping the bar. See, you all need to work together to make it work the best. The problem is, you aren’t working with anyone, Brody.”
It hurt to hear Ella say that. That he wasn’t being a team player. He’d always been the leader of the group and now he was being told he couldn’t lead anymore. That part of his identity was being stripped away.
He wanted to shout at Ella, at everyone, but he didn’t. The last time he started shouting, fists went flying and he found himself spending a week in a hotel room alone. This time he tried to find some restraint, the one thing he had the least of among all his siblings. Being a hothead went hand in hand with being the loudest and the biggest.
“So you think hiring me a new day manager is going to allow me to play nice with everyone?”
Aiden laughed. “You’ve never played nice with us, so we don’t expect it now. We just want to get back to working as a team.”
He wanted to grind his teeth. “I’ve always worked as part of the team.”
“Brody,” Mason said. “You haven’t been the same for a good year now and you know it. The last six months, you’ve been downright ornery. More than normal.”
Again, they weren’t telling him anything he hadn’t known or felt deep inside.
Cade stood up and walked toward him, then stopped and seemed to hesitate. Very unlike Cade to hesitate over anything. “We’ve given you time to get over what happened a year ago. Rather than get better, you’re getting worse. What can we do to help?”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “There’s nothing to do. It’s in the past and it’s over with. I’ve moved on. Everyone else should, too.”
“If this is moving on,” Aiden said, “then we’re in trouble.”
Little Bit of Heat
“Are you sure you’re okay with her today?” Aimee asked Rick, her stepfather.
“We’ll be fine. Go to work and enjoy yourself.”
Aimee just smiled. Work had been great the past two days. She was learning so much and couldn’t wait to start in the bar.
A lot of people might hate working in the hospitality industry, but Aimee loved it. She knew nothing else, so it was a good thing she didn’t mind what she did.
The fact that she was able to get a full-time job doing it was even better. And no nights and only one day on the weekend. Having Thursday and Sunday off was going to be nice. She wouldn’t make as much working eleven to seven as she would bartending nights, but her priorities had changed in the past two years.
“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it. Melanie can take Sidney every day but Wednesdays. She has to watch her grandson that day.”
“It’s not a problem,” Rick assured her. “I’m just glad you moved back home so I could help.”
Moving home was something Aimee hadn’t wanted to do. She hadn’t wanted to burden her stepfather with her problems. To see his disappointment daily that she’d somehow followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a single mother at an early age. One with no education and no prospects of a stable job.
Getting this job at Fierce was a chance of a lifetime. If it weren’t for Melanie, her mother’s best friend, putting in a good word for her with Jolene Fierce, it might have never happened.
Not that she wanted to be beholden to anyone, but at this point, she wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
She glanced down at her two-year-old daughter, happily playing house with a doll and baby bottle. Twin black pigtails on each side of her head, twirling like a soft serve ice cream cone.
“Mommy is going to work, Sidney,” Aimee said, squatting down and picking her daughter up. “I want you to be a good girl for Grandpa.”
“Yes,” Sidney said. She wasn’t much for talking. Aimee worried there was something wrong with her daughter, but the doctors told her everything was fine, that Sidney was just quiet. She’d talk more when she was ready.
It was just another guilt on her shoulders right now, that maybe she wasn’t doing right by her daughter. That she wasn’t around enough in these early days and should have been spending more time teaching her skills, reading to her, just playing with her.
But bills had to be paid, and food had to be put on the table. The guy that fathered Sidney sure the heck wasn’t helping, so tough choices had been made. The problem was, were they the right choices?
With a kiss on Sidney’s cheek, she put her back on the floor with her dolls, then grabbed her purse and started to walk out of the room.
“Aimee?” Rick’s voice stopped her from opening the door. “Have fun at work and don’t worry about us. We’ll be just fine.”
“Call me if there are any problems, please.”
“There won’t be.”
Aimee nodded her head and walked out the front door to her aging sedan in the driveway.
Today was the day. She was finally going to meet her new boss, Brody Fierce.
Well, her immediate boss. She’d met everyone else, including Gavin and Jolene Fierce, the original owners of Fierce.
With thoughts of Sidney and her stepfather pushed to the back of her brain, she drove the few miles to her new job and parked in the back lot.
When she got out of the car, she looked down at her black pants and red work shirt with the logo in the right-hand corner. All employees had the same uniform so they stood out. It actually made life easier for her. No worries about buying more clothes that would only get ruined at work, not that she could afford new clothes anyway.
And no worries if she should dress sexier to get bigger tips. She’d never liked doing it, but had been pushed to plenty of times in her line of work. Sure, the money was great, but not enough to sell out her pride.
Nope. The black bottoms were her choice. Could be pants, shorts, or a skirt, but nothing shorter than mid-thigh. She’d noticed some of the waitresses went for the shorter length, but not her. Black pants were good enough.
She even had a choice of red tops. Loose or form fitting, long or short sleeves, but nothing dipped low enough to show cleavage. Fierce wasn’t about objectifying its staff and that was clear. It was a higher-end establishment, and they wanted to keep that image.
Aimee hoped that high-end image bled over into the bar tips too. She needed all the help she could get right now.
Brody felt like one of those cartoon characters that had steam coming out of his ears as he made his way to the bar after the meeting.
How could they think he hadn’t moved on? How could they think he was a control freak?
Because it was all true, that’s how. Not that he’d admit it to anyone. Then again, it seemed he didn’t need to.
Flipping the lights on around the bar, he started to set up for the day, knowing his new employee would be in shortly. Everything he had planned had to be pushed aside, because now he had to train someone.
He hated training people. It was just easier to do it himself regardless of the number of hours he’d been working.
One by one, the kitchen and waitstaff made their way in until someone he didn’t recognize pushed the door open and came to a complete standstill, making eye contact with him, then taking a deep breath and marching forward.
He was good at reading people. What he saw was forced confidence on a younger woman.
She extended her hand when she stopped a few feet in front of him, her head barely reaching the shoulders of his six-foot-two-inch frame. “Hi, I’m Aimee and you’re Brody.”
He returned her handshake, holding on longer than he should have as his eyes lingered over her. Her shake was firm, her stare bold with a touch of nervousness.
She was much younger than he thought she’d be, even hoped for. A bar manager—especially a woman—and in a bar the caliber of Fierce, should have fifteen years’ experience at minimum unless they owned it, and still that would be pushing it. She looked to be a few years out of high school.
Her hair was pulled away from her face in front, black curls hanging down her back. Face scrubbed clean of any makeup, hands soft and minus any sparkle or shine of nail polish. Dressed like him in black pants and the standard red Fierce cotton shirt. She went for the fitted one, but a size or two bigger than she should have.
“Yep, that’s me. I’m afraid you’ve got me at a disadvantage,” he said, his deep voice hinting at amusement. He could be pissed at his siblings, but the lingering family meeting in the back of his brain said to hold any resentment in at the moment.
“Sorry about that,” she said, walking around the bar and making herself at home. Part of him was annoyed, the other part impressed. She didn’t intimidate easily.
“Not your fault. Needless to say, my family has had time to get to know your background and experience, but no one has shared that information.”
She straightened up quickly from where she’d locked her purse under the bar and turned. “Oh. I guess I didn’t expect that. Would you like to see a copy of my resume?”
He laughed. “That would be pretty useless right now. Besides, you wouldn’t have lasted one hour if you didn’t have the experience. Actually, you wouldn’t have gotten in the door if you didn’t.”
“Okay,” she said, frowning. “Then what would you like to know?”
“Right now, nothing,” he said. “It’s going to come down to how you and I work together.”
“Not a problem,” she said, smiling confidently. “I get along with most people.”
“Only most?” He was used to flirting with customers, but not employees. Yet this didn’t seem like flirting, really. She was being friendly and firm, keeping her distance and putting up invisible walls. He’d done it enough at the bar to know what she was doing. That alone showed her experience. Keep a conversation going, redirect it if it gets dicey, but never offend a paying customer. It also applied to your boss.
“I guess we’ll find out if you fall into that category or not,” she said, grinning at him while she tied a short black apron around her waist. “So, show me how you open the bar.”
For the next thirty minutes, he walked her through his routine. “I’m sure you’ve been told the basics. Bar and restaurant open at eleven thirty. Entrees stop at nine Sunday through Thursday nights, ten on Friday and Saturday. Bar menu only after that, which is just appetizer food.”
“Yes,” she said. “Bar closes midnight most nights, two a.m. on Friday and Saturday. One bartender on duty until three each day, two or three on from three to closing, depending on the day and time of year. Thirty seats at the bar, we take drink and food orders from anyone sitting here, waitstaff deal with the rest.”
“Good memory,” he said. “Waitstaff are split. The faster ones serve those sitting in the bar area, since many linger for drinks after they eat and we want to fill them fast. The tables turn over slower here than the back room, but the tips are higher.”
“I’ve done my fair share of waitressing. From what I’ve seen, the restaurant and staff have a nice smooth flow to them.”
“Every facet of Fierce does and we want to keep it that way.”
“A warning?” she asked. “Don’t rock the boat?”
There was no smile on her face, but no coldness either. Just an honest question. “It could be.”
“I’m not here to make changes. Are suggestions welcomed, or do I keep my opinions to myself?”
“Suggestions are always welcome,” he said briskly. He could be businesslike, too.
It wasn’t long before the tables in the bar area were filling up, along with the stools at the bar.
“What sounds good today?” Brody heard someone ask Aimee.
“What are you in the mood for?” she asked, wiping the bar in front of him and grabbing a menu to hand over.
“I’m open to anything. Sell me,” he said, adding a wink. Brody ground his teeth but pushed away his reaction. This was why he hated women bartending, but he knew they brought in plenty of business. His staff knew how to handle being hit on. There was no reason for him to be bothered since it seemed Aimee could handle herself. The hint of protectiveness threw him off for the moment. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt it so strongly for someone he’d just met.
“Well, if you like some heat, then you can’t go wrong with the Fierce Fire Tacos and a double IPA as a chaser.”
“A little bit of heat is always a good thing. What’s so good about it?” the customer asked.
“As you know, Aiden is a master at what he does, not to mention Mason in the brewery. The pork is marinated in Fierce’s Fire Brew. If you’ve never had it, you really should try it. Then again, it’s not for everyone with the hint of habaneros to it. It’s topped off with a mango pineapple slaw, a sweet afternote to cool down the fire of the sriracha aioli on top.”
Brody’s own mouth was watering as she described one of Aiden’s top-selling lunch dishes—which also happened to be his favorite. She had a voice that just sucked you right in. Her direct eye contact with the customer wasn’t hurting either. Make them feel like they can trust you—she had that nailed.
“Sold. I’ll take it with the double IPA and an order of fries.”
Aimee walked over to the touch screen, put the order in, and got the client’s draft. Two more clients came in to her side of the bar and he watched her do the same. Sell the bar menu as if she’d been eating the items for years, rather than spending one day with Aiden.
“Have you really sampled those dishes or are you just lying through your teeth?” Brody asked her an hour later, when she moved over to his side of the bar to grab a specialty vodka for one of his signature drinks. “You need help with that?”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind making it while I watch?” He grabbed what he needed and got to work making this week’s martini special. “And yes. I’ve tried the dishes that I’m speaking of. I went home with a stomachache after, but Aiden was great, letting me sample all the bar food. I like to be able to give honest opinions to people.”
“Anything you didn’t like?” he asked, shaking the drink, watching her as she watched his hands and every move he made. He could see she was like a sponge. Wondered if that went to all aspects of her life. Damn, there he went again, his mind shifting to spots it had no business going.
“Some things weren’t to my liking, but I found what I did like about them so I can sell that.” If she had any idea of his train of thought, she didn’t let on.
“Like what?” He poured the blue liquid into the sugar-rimmed glass that she’d gotten ready for him.
“I’m not a big fan of artichokes, but I still tried the dip with homemade chips.”
He handed the finished drink over to her. “So how will you sell that if someone asks?”
“I’ll ask how much they like artichokes. A hint or full-on assault. If they say a hint, then I’ll kindly tell them it might not be their thing but push them onto something else.”
He smiled. “I’ve told Aiden there are too many artichoke chunks in the dip too, but he doesn’t listen. Since it sells well, I guess he’s right and I’m wrong.”
She walked back to her customer with the drink a few feet away, then turned and asked louder than normal, “Are you wrong often?”
“Rarely,” he said, smirking. She was going to be a worthy foe; he could tell right now.