Steph wound up not going back to her radio booth. Charlotte didn’t go back to her store, either. The four girls were still sitting at the bar hours later, drinking and munching on fries as Alex kept serving them. While taking the occasional drink herself, though she made it a point to stay as sober as possible.
“I was going to send them to his mother,” Jessie was confessing to Steph, as Alex set a new drink in front of her. “Show her what kind of juvenile shit her baby boy did to try and impress me.”
“Oh, MAN, that would have been a low blow,” Steph slurred as she sipped her beer. “Were the photos actually, like… impressive?”
“I mean, not really.” The blonde shrugged. “Nothing I would’ve been proud to put online if I was a guy. And they definitely did not get the engine running, if you know what I mean.”
“You still have them?”
Jessie scoffed. “Of course I do. You never get rid of blackmail material.”
“Can we see?”
Alex frowned as she watched Jessie pull her phone out. “Babe, what in the world are you doing?”
“What? I’m just curious.” Steph looked behind her, where Charlotte and Riley were also having a tipsy conversation about boys. “Hey. Hey, guys.”
They stopped and looked at her.
“Wanna see the nudes of Jessie’s dickhead ex?”
Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “Are they embarrassing?”
“She says so.”
Jessie flipped through her phone before showing it to the others. Who all took one look and immediately started laughing. “Oh my God, are you serious?” Riley chortled. “He’s so proud of THAT?”
“It’s not BAD,” Charlotte allowed, tilting her head while snickering. “But, like… if you’re going to send shit like that, it had better take my breath away.”
“Dude, you should definitely send those to his mother.” Steph looked up. “Alex. Alex, did you see?”
“Woah, no, no thank you,” Alex said quickly as she blocked her view of the phone with her hand. “I have no desire to see nudes of Jessie’s ex.”
“It’s… oh, shit.” Steph blanched, looking at the phone, then back at Jessie. “Dude, I shouldn’t be looking at those. I have a girlfriend.”
Jessie snorted as she put her phone away. “I know. You’ve told me, like… I dunno, six times.”
“Yea. That’s her.” Steph pointed a shaky finger at Alex. “The cutie bartender. She’s mine. Can’t have her.”
The others chuckled again. “Okay, babe, I think you’re cut off for a little bit,” Alex told her. “Let’s get a couple rounds of water in you.”
“Aww.” Steph looked at Jessie. “She’s, like, the best. Trying to keep my liver intact and shit.”
Alex shook her head as she set a glass of ice water in front of her girlfriend. “I’m gonna go check on everyone else. Would you try to finish this?”
Steph gave her a thumbs up.
Her rounds through the rest of the bar didn’t take long. Alex cleaned up two tables, promising to check on the food for a third as she ducked back into the kitchen. She was dropping the dirty plates off when Ryan stepped through the side door.
“How goes it?” he asked as Alex stacked everything neatly for the dishwasher.
“So far, so good. How are the cameras?”
“Got some footage of those wolves on a few of them. They’re moving around a lot, but it looks like they’re definitely establishing their own territory.”
“So they’ll be fine?”
“I’m… cautiously optimistic,” he allowed, working the zipper on his light jacket, revealing the red flannel shirt underneath. “We’ll see how they are after this winter. What do you need?”
“Well, you can…” she let her voice trail off as Ryan shed the jacket, tossing it into the office beside them. “Hmm.”
He looked at her, confused. “What?”
Alex silently looked him up and down. She did say she had a low bar. And he’s got the mountain-man vibe that women swoon over.
This might play out well.
“Roll up your sleeves.”
“Your sleeves.” She pointed at his shirt. “All the way up to your biceps. And tuck your shirt in, you look like a hipster when it hangs out like that.”
He looked at her, perplexed. “What the hell for?”
“I’m trying to help you out, dude. Just do it.”
Ryan still looked wary, but he complied, rolling up his sleeves and quickly tucking in the shirt.
“Good. Now, grab two of those cases of beer.” She pointed at the fridge where they kept their glass bottles. “The Dos Equis and the Corona, we’re running a little low out front. Follow me out in two minutes, drop them off behind the bar, don’t make eye contact with anyone sitting there, then leave. And make it look like you’re lifting them easily, not like it’s taking a ton of effort.”
“Why am I doing all of this?”
“Because I said so.”
With that, she left the kitchen, re-taking her place behind the bar just in time to get Steph a new glass of water. “How come I’m the only one here that you’re cutting off?” Her girlfriend asked in a pained voice. “Why does everyone else get to keep drinking?
“Because I’m not spending the night with them,” Alex replied dryly. “Your beer breath stinks. And last time you had a hangover, you didn’t get out of bed until two in the afternoon.”
Steph shook her head, taking her glass as she looked at Jessie. “This stuff I put up with for this girl,” she bemoaned.
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry you have someone who cares about you,” Jessie mocked playfully. “Must be terrible.”
“No, she’s the best.’ Steph smiled goofily at Alex. “She’s mine. Can’t have her.”
“Okay, that’s getting annoying.” Alex nudged the glass in front of her. “Come on, you need to get some more water under your belt.”
“I can think of some other stuff I’d like you to do under my belt.”
Jessie snorted into her fist, snickering fiercely as Alex narrowed her eyes. “Babe, you are one wrong step away from doing a whole line of Bedazzled Kiwi shots. Choose your next words very carefully.”
Steph winced. “… I love you?”
“Good answer. Now drink up.”
Ryan made his appearance in that moment, doing as Alex had told him; carrying two cases of beer, making it look effortless as he brought them behind the bar. The rolled sleeves made his arm muscles look bigger as he slowly set them down, and she watched the park ranger immediately catch Jessie’s eye.
“There you go.” He dusted off his hands. “You good?”
“Yea, I should be. Thanks man.”
He nodded and left, Jessie’s stare following him in a very un-subtle way.
Oh, yea. Hook’s baited and we’re nibbling.
… man, I’ve been listening to way too many of Duckie’s fishing stories.
“Shake your head, Jessie, before your eyes get stuck,” she told the blonde.
Jessie tore her gaze away, flushing as she looked back at Alex. “Sorry. Just… he did not look like that at the town hall,” she commented. “Does he work here?”
“He’s one of the owners.” Alex opened the first beer case and started taking the bottles out. “Ryan’s also the local park ranger. He spent most of today checking out the hiking trails.”
“That’s why he voted no on the second site?”
Steph looked back and forth between the two of them a few times before realization dawned on her, a grin spreading across her face. “He’s also single,” she added. “And a really nice guy. Though he’s a little socially awkward.”
Jessie hummed as she glanced back across the bar, watching Ryan chat with another table. “… I’ve done worse than a socially awkward park ranger.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to do said socially awkward park ranger?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Jessie looked back at her. “What’s his deal? Like, he’s cute and all, so why doesn’t he have a girlfriend?”
“Because between this job and being a park ranger, he’s been busy as hell for the past three months,” Alex answered. “But I just bought a third of the bar from him, so he has free time again.”
“Hmm.” Jessie’s eyes wandered back towards Ryan. “He’s not crazy, right? Or into weird shit?”
“He does like birds way too much,” Steph allowed. “He could probably name every bird that lives in this state. Never seen someone more into birdwatching.”
Jessie turned to look at her. “He’s a birder?”
“… what the hell is that?”
“A serious birdwatcher.”
Steph had a puzzled look on her face. “There’s a term for that? Besides ‘massive nerd’?”
“My family was totally into it when I was younger. My mom and brothers are allergic to cats, so we set up owl perches all over the ranch to keep the rodents under control. My dad and I used to watch them hunt at night. And we had a family of Cooper’s Hawks that came through every year on their way to Canada.” She leaned forward. “Is there good birding around here?”
“Holy shit.” Steph looked at Alex with wide eyes. “There’s fucking two of them.”
“Tell me you like hiking,” Alex ordered the blonde.
“I love hiking.”
“And that social awkwardness isn’t a turn-off.”
“Seriously?” She thumbed over her shoulder. “You were watching me drink by myself this morning.”
“Awesome. You want to be set up?”
Jessie hesitated. “Like… right now?”
“No time like the present.”
“Shit.” She looked down at what she was wearing. “If I had known it was a possibility, I would’ve worn a nicer shirt. And a clean bra.”
“We promise, if you make it that far, he probably won’t notice,” Steph assured her.
Jessie pursed her lips, looking back at Ryan again before slowly inhaling. “… screw it,” she pronounced, lifting her glass and quickly downing the rest of her beer. “I’m fucking single again, might as well act like it.”
Steph clapped her on the back of the shoulder. “That’s the fucking spirit.”
“Here.” Alex quickly poured her two light beers, setting them in front of her. “Go back to your table. I got the rest.”
Jessie obeyed, getting off the bar stool. Alex turned and followed Ryan back into the kitchen as he carried a load of dirty dishes.
“Alright.” He set them down with the others before looking at Alex. “Are you going to tell me what that was about before, or not?”
“Yes. I’m setting you up with someone.”
He did a double take. “Huh?”
“You. Getting set up. With a girl.” Alex spoke slowly. “Comprende?”
“Remember that cute blonde from the town hall? SubTerra’s engineer?”
He frowned, and Alex could see him mind trying to work. “Jenny?”
“Jessie, you moron.” Alex turned and grabbed a fry basket, loading it as she continued to speak. “We’ve been drinking with her for a few hours now. She’s smart, funny, and thinks you’re cute.”
“Yes. Here.” Alex shoved the basket into his hands. “Go sit and talk to her. And try really hard not to be boring.”
Ryan shifted uncomfortably as he looked at the fries in his hand. “Alex, I don’t know about this. I barely even remember her.”
“Use some critical thinking, dude. She’s cute, she’s single, and she’s in Haven Springs, where the dating pool is about three inches deep. You might not get this chance again.”
“Did I mention that she likes bird-watching?”
Ryan blinked. “She does?”
“She actually called it ‘birding’. And wanted to know if it was any good around here.” Alex pointed at the door. “Go ask her about the owls and hawks that used to hunt on her family’s ranch back in Wyoming. Or I’m going to kick your ass.”
He still looked hesitant, but he obeyed her instructions, rolling his shoulders before leaving the kitchen and approaching Jessie. Alex re-took her position behind the bar, interrupting the hushed conversation between Steph, Charlotte, and Riley. “There he is, there he is,” Steph was whispering.
“Hey.” Alex rapped her knuckles on the bar, getting their attention. “You three. Look less obvious.”
They tried, watching from the sides of their eyes as the park ranger approached Jessie with the basket of fries. She looked up from her beer as he approached, smiling. “Hi.”
“Hey,” he greeted nervously.
“You must be Ryan.”
“So I’m told.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Dope,” she muttered.
“I’m Jessie.” She stood, wiping her hands on her jeans. “Nice to meet you.”
“Are those for us?”
“Uh, yea.” Ryan scratched the back of his head. “Alex said that if I didn’t come ask about the birds on your ranch, she was going to kick my ass.”
Jessie snorted in amusement as Riley, Charlotte, and Steph started giggling. Alex just threw up her hands in exasperation. “I fuckin’ quit.”
“Babe, I think you did something good here.”
Alex smiled as she glanced over Steph’s shoulder. It was the end of the night, and the bar had mostly emptied out, including Riley and Charlotte. But Ryan and Jessie were still at their table, happily making conversation.
“I hope so.” She looked back at Steph. “A new girl comes into town, breaks up with her last boyfriend for reasons that weren’t her fault, and just so happens to also like birdwatching? I mean, come on.”
“Yea, talk about stars aligning,” Steph agreed. “And nice job setting them up. You might have a new talent to capitalize on if being a bar owner doesn’t work out for you.”
“Ooh. Alex Chen’s Matchmaking Service.” She frowned. “We might need to workshop the name.”
“And move to a bigger city. I don’t think the singles’ scene in Haven Springs is big enough to make serious money off of.”
“True, though I’d probably just do it as a side job.” She tilted her head to look past her girlfriend. “Have a good night, guys.”
Steph turned to see three guys waving as they left, the door closing behind them, and checked her watch. “Guess it’s about that time.”
“Yep.” Alex plucked a fry from Steph’s basket. “Let’s move things along a little.”
The brunette ducked out of the way as Alex threw the fry at Ryan, the snack hitting the back of his head. He jerked in his seat, before glancing over his shoulder.
“It’s almost nine,” she told him. “Ask her out already, so we can close up.”
Jessie giggled as Ryan shot Alex a look. “I’m instituting a ‘no throwing food’ rule,” he stated dryly.
“I’m an owner too. Let’s get a move on, before I start throwing empties instead.”
He shook his head and turned back as Alex bagged up the trash behind the bar before carrying it out the back. It was s short trip to the dumpster, though when she returned, the door to the Black Lantern was closing as Ryan flipped the sign.
“They’re getting dinner tomorrow night at Brown Bear,” Steph informed her.
“Snitch.” Ryan gathered up the fry basket and empty glasses from the table. “Just because she’s responsible doesn’t mean she gets to know everything.”
“Bull shit,” Alex countered with a smirk. “And If I don’t get it from you, I’ll just ask her. I think we became her new friends tonight.”
“There’s a thought I’ll try not to let fester.” Ryan shook his head. “… thanks, though. For real.”
“Sure thing.” Alex smiled. “What were you guys talking about?”
“Small talk, mostly. Likes, dislikes, our jobs, birdwatching, that sort of stuff.”
“You guys have a lot in common?”
“Super.” Alex paused. “What’s her last name?”
Ryan looked at her with a blank face. “Um…”
“… you moron.”