Book 1 in the Whiskey and Lies Series
Sparks fly between a former cop-turned-bartender and his new innkeeper in the first installment of a Montgomery Ink spin-off series from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan.
Dare Collins is a man who knows his whiskey and women—or at least that’s what he tells himself. When his family decides to hire on a new innkeeper for the inn above his bar and restaurant, he’s more than reluctant. Especially when he meets the new hire. But he’ll soon find that he has no choice but to work with this city girl and accept her new ideas and the burning attraction between them.
Kenzie Owens left her old life and an abusive relationship behind her—or so she thought. She figures she’ll be safe in Whiskey, Pennsylvania but after one look at her new boss, Dare Collins, she might still be in danger, or at least her heart. And when her past catches up with her despite her attempts to avoid it, it’s more than her heart on the line. This time, it might mean her life.
Shocking pain slammed into his skull and down his back. Dare Collins did his best not to scream in the middle of his own bar. He slowly stood up and rubbed the back of his head since he’d been distracted and hit it on the countertop. Since the thing was made of solid wood and thick as hell, he was surprised he hadn’t given himself a concussion. But since he didn’t see double, he had a feeling once his long night was over, he’d just have to make the throbbing go away with a glass of Macallan.
There was nothing better than a glass of smooth whiskey or an ice-cold mug of beer after a particularly long day. Which one Dare chose each night depended on not only his mood but also those around him. So was the life of a former cop turned bartender.
He had a feeling he’d be going for the whiskey and not a woman tonight—like most nights if he were honest. It had been a long day of inventory and no-show staff members. Meaning he had a headache from hell, and it looked as if he’d be working open to close when he truly didn’t want to. But that’s what happened when one was the owner of a bar and restaurant rather than just a manager or bartender—like he was with the Old Whiskey Restaurant and Bar.
It didn’t help that his family had been in and out of the place all day for one reason or another—his brothers and parents either wanting something to eat or having a question that needed to be answered right away where a phone call or text wouldn’t suffice. His mom and dad had mentioned more than once that he needed to be ready for their morning meeting, and he had a bad feeling in his gut about what that would mean for him later. But he pushed that from his thoughts because he was used to things in his life changing on a dime. He’d left the force for a reason, after all.
Enough of that.
He loved his family, he really did, but sometimes, they—his parents in particular—gave him a headache.
Since his mom and dad still ran the Old Whiskey Inn above his bar, they were constantly around, working their tails off at odd jobs that were far too hard for them at their ages, but they were all just trying to earn a living. When they weren’t handling business for the inn, they were fixing problems upstairs that Dare wished they’d let him help with.
While he’d have preferred to call it a night and head back to his place a few blocks away, he knew that wouldn’t happen tonight. Since his bartender, Rick, had called in sick at the last minute—as well as two of Dare’s waitresses from the bar—Dare was pretty much screwed.
And if he wallowed just a little bit more, he might hear a tiny violin playing in his ear. He needed to get a grip and get over it. Working late and dealing with other people’s mistakes was part of his job description, and he was usually fine with that.
Apparently, he was just a little off tonight. And since he knew himself well, he had a feeling it was because he was nearing the end of his time without his kid. Whenever he spent too many days away from Nathan, he acted like a crabby asshole. Thankfully, his weekend was coming up.
“Solving a hard math problem over there, or just daydreaming? Because that expression on your face looks like you’re working your brain too hard. I’m surprised I don’t see smoke coming out of your ears.” Fox asked as he walked up to the bar, bringing Dare out of his thoughts. Dare had been pulling drafts and cleaning glasses mindlessly while in his head, but he was glad for the distraction, even if it annoyed him that he needed one.
Dare shook his head and flipped off his brother. “Suck me.”
The bar was busy that night, so Fox sat down on one of the empty stools and grinned. “Nice way to greet your customers.” He glanced over his shoulder before looking back at Dare and frowning. “Where are Rick and the rest of your staff?”
Dare barely held back a growl. “Out sick. Either there’s really a twenty-four-hour stomach bug going around and I’m going to be screwed for the next couple of days, or they’re all out on benders.”
Fox cursed under his breath before hopping off his stool and going around the side of the large oak and maple bar to help out. That was Dare’s family in a nutshell—they dropped everything whenever one of them needed help, and nobody even had to ask for it. Since Dare sucked at asking for help on a good day, he was glad that Fox knew what he needed without him having to say it.
Without asking, Fox pulled up a few drink orders and began mixing them with the skill of a long-time barkeep. Since Fox owned the small town newspaper—the Whiskey Chronicle—Dare was still surprised sometimes at how deft his younger brother was at working alongside him. Of course, even his parents, his older brother Loch, and his younger sister Tabby knew their way around the bar.
Just not as well as Dare did. Considering that this was his job, he was grateful for that.
He loved his family, his bar, and hell, he even loved his little town on the outskirts of Philly. Whiskey, Pennsylvania was like most other small towns in his state where some parts were new additions, and others were old stone buildings from the Revolutionary or Civil war eras with add-ons—like his.
And with a place called Whiskey, everyone attached the label where they could. Hence the town paper, his bar, and most of the other businesses around town. Only Loch’s business really stood out with Loch’s Security and Gym down the street, but that was just like Loch to be a little different yet still part of the town.
Whiskey had been named as such because of its old bootlegging days. It used to be called something else, but since Prohibition, the town had changed its name and cashed in on it. Whiskey was one of the last places in the country to keep Prohibition on the books, even with the nationwide decree. They’d fought to keep booze illegal, not for puritan reasons, but because their bootlegging market had helped the township thrive. Dare knew there was a lot more to it than that, but those were the stories the leaders told the tourists, and it helped with the flare.
Whiskey was located right on the Delaware River, so it overlooked New Jersey but was still on the Pennsylvania side of things. The main bridge that connected the two states through Whiskey and Ridge on the New Jersey side was one of the tourist spots for people to drive over and walk so they could be in two states at once while over the Delaware River.
Their town was steeped in history, and close enough to where George Washington had crossed the Delaware that they were able to gain revenue on the reenactments for the tourists, thus helping keep their town afloat.
The one main road through Whiskey that not only housed Loch’s and Dare’s businesses but also many of the other shops and restaurants in the area, was always jammed with cars and people looking for places to parallel park. Dare’s personal parking lot for the bar and inn was a hot commodity.
And while he might like time to himself some days, he knew he wouldn’t trade Whiskey’s feel for any other place. They were a weird little town that was a mesh of history and newcomers, and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. His sister Tabby might have moved out west and found her love and her place with the Montgomerys in Denver, but Dare knew he’d only ever find his home here.
Sure, he’d had a few flings in Denver when he visited his sister, but he knew they’d never be more than one night or two. Hell, he was the king of flings these days, and that was for good reason. He didn’t need commitment or attachments beyond his family and his son, Nathan.
Time with Nathan’s mom had proven that to him, after all.
“You’re still daydreaming over there,” Fox called out from the other side of the bar. “You okay?”
Dare nodded, frowning. “Yeah, I think I need more caffeine or something since my mind keeps wandering.” He pasted on his trademark grin and went to help one of the new arrivals who’d taken a seat at the bar. Dare wasn’t the broody one of the family—that honor went to Loch—and he hated when he acted like it.
“What can I get you?” he asked a young couple that had taken two empty seats at the bar. They had matching wedding bands on their fingers but looked to be in their early twenties.
He couldn’t imagine being married that young. Hell, he’d never been married, and he was in his mid-thirties now. He hadn’t married Monica even though she’d given him Nathan, and even now, he wasn’t sure they’d have ever taken that step even if they had stayed together. She had Auggie now, and he had…well, he had his bar.
That wasn’t depressing at all.
“Two Yuenglings please, draft if you have it,” the guy said, smiling.
Dare nodded. “Gonna need to see your IDs, but I do have it on tap for you.” As Yuengling was a Pennsylvania beer, not having it outside the bottle would be stupid even in a town that prided itself on whiskey.
The couple pulled out their IDs, and Dare checked them quickly. Since both were now the ripe age of twenty-two, he went to pull them their beers and set out their check since they weren’t looking to run a tab.
Another woman with long, caramel brown hair with hints of red came to sit at the edge of the bar. Her hair lay in loose waves down her back and she had on a sexy-as-fuck green dress that draped over her body to showcase sexy curves and legs that seemed to go on forever. The garment didn’t have sleeves so he could see the toned muscles in her arms work as she picked up a menu to look at it. When she looked up, she gave him a dismissive glance before focusing on the menu again. He held back a sigh. Not in the mood to deal with whatever that was about, he let Fox take care of her and put her from his mind. No use dealing with a woman who clearly didn’t want him near, even if it were just to take a drink order. Funny, he usually had to speak to a female before making her want him out of the picture. At least, that’s what he’d learned from Monica.
And why the hell was he thinking about his ex again? He usually only thought of her in passing when he was talking to Nathan or hanging out with his kid for the one weekend a month the custody agreement let Dare have him. Having been in a dangerous job and then becoming a bartender didn’t look good to some lawyers it seemed, at least when Monica had fought for full custody after Nathan was born.
He pushed those thoughts from his mind, however, not in the mood to scare anyone with a scowl on his face by remembering how his ex had looked down on him for his occupation even though she’d been happy to slum it with him when it came to getting her rocks off.
Dare went through the motions of mixing a few more drinks before leaving Fox to tend to the bar so he could go check on the restaurant part of the building.
Since the place had originally been an old stone inn on both floors instead of just the top one, it was set up a little differently than most newer buildings around town. The bar was off to one side; the restaurant area where they served delicious, higher-end entrees and tapas was on the other. Most people needed a reservation to sit down and eat in the main restaurant area, but the bar also had seating for dinner, only their menu wasn’t quite as extensive and ran closer to bar food.
In the past, he’d never imagined he would be running something like this, even though his parents had run a smaller version of it when he was a kid. But none of his siblings had been interested in taking over once his parents wanted to retire from the bar part and only run the inn. When Dare decided to leave the force only a few years in, he’d found his place here, however reluctantly.
Being a cop hadn’t been for him, just like being in a relationship. He’d thought he would be able to do the former, but life had taken a turn, and he’d faced his mortality far sooner than he bargained for. Apparently, being a gruff, perpetually single bar owner was more his speed, and he was pretty damn good at it, too. Most days, anyway.
His house manager over on the restaurant side was running from one thing to another, but from the outside, no one would have noticed. Claire was just that good. She was in her early fifties and already a grandmother, but she didn’t look a day over thirty-five with her smooth, dark skin and bright smile. Good genes and makeup did wonders—according to her anyway. He’d be damned if he’d say that. His mother and Tabby had taught him something over the years.
The restaurant was short-staffed but managing, and he was grateful he had Claire working long hours like he did. He oversaw it all, but he knew he couldn’t have done it without her. After making sure she didn’t need anything, he headed back to the bar to relieve Fox. The rush was finally dying down now, and his brother could just sit back and enjoy a beer since Dare knew he’d already worked a long day at the paper.
By the time the restaurant closed and the bar only held a few dwindling costumers, Dare was ready to go to bed and forget the whole lagging day. Of course, he still had to close out the two businesses and talk to both Fox and Loch since his older brother had shown up a few moments ago. Maybe he’d get them to help him close out so he wouldn’t be here until midnight. He must be tired if the thought of closing out was too much for him.
“So, Rick didn’t show, huh?” Loch asked as he stood up from his stool. His older brother started cleaning up beside Fox, and Dare held back a smile. He’d have to repay them in something other than beer, but he knew they were working alongside him because they were family and had the time; they weren’t doing it for rewards.
“Nope. Shelly and Kayla didn’t show up either.” Dare resisted the urge to grind his teeth at that. “Thanks for helping. I’m exhausted and wasn’t in the mood to deal with this all alone.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Loch said with a shrug.
“By the way, you have any idea what this seven a.m. meeting tomorrow is about?” Fox asked after a moment. “They’re putting Tabby on speaker phone for it and everything.”
Dare let out a sigh. “I’m not in the mood to deal with any meeting that early. I have no idea what it’s going to be about, but I have a bad feeling.”
“Seems like they have an announcement.” Loch sat back down on his stool and scrolled through his phone. He was constantly working or checking on his daughter, so his phone was strapped to him at all times. Misty had to be with Loch’s best friend, Ainsley, since his brother worked that night. Ainsley helped out when Loch needed a night to work or see Dare. Loch had full custody of Misty, and being a single father wasn’t easy.
Dare had a feeling no matter what his parents had to say, things were going to be rocky after the morning meeting. His parents were caring, helpful, and always wanted the best for their family. That also meant they tended to be slightly overbearing in the most loving way possible.
It looked like he’d go without whiskey or a woman tonight.
Of course, an image of the woman with gorgeous hair and that look of disdain filled his mind, and he held back a sigh. Once again, Dare was a glutton for punishment, even in his thoughts.
The next morning, he cupped his mug of coffee in his hands and prayed his eyes would stay open. He’d stupidly gotten caught up on paperwork the night before and was now running on about three hours of sleep.
Loch sat in one of the booths with Misty, watching as she colored in her coloring book. She was the same age as Nathan, which Dare always appreciated since the cousins could grow up like siblings—on weekends when Dare had Nathan that was. The two kids got along great, and he hoped that continued throughout the cootie phases kids seemed to get sporadically.
Fox sat next to Dare at one of the tables with his laptop open. Since his brother owned the town paper, he was always up-to-date on current events and was even now typing up something.
They had Dare’s phone between them with Tabby on the other line, though she wasn’t saying anything. Her fiancé, Alex, was probably near as well since those two seemed to be attached at the hip. Considering his future brother-in-law adored Tabby, Dare didn’t mind that as much as he probably should have as a big brother.
The elder Collinses stood at the bar, smiles on their faces, yet Dare saw nervousness in their stances. He’d been a cop too long to miss it. They were up to something, and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it.
“Just get it over with,” Dare said, keeping his language decent—not only for Misty but also because his mother would still take him by the ear if he cursed in front of her.
But because his tone had bordered on rude, his mother still raised a brow, and he sighed. Yep, he had a really bad feeling about this.
“Good morning to you, too, Dare,” Bob Collins said with a snort and shook his head. “Well, since you’re all here, even our baby girl, Tabby—”
“Not a baby, Dad!” Tabby called out from the phone, and the rest of them laughed, breaking the tension slightly.
“Yeah, we’re not babies,” Misty put in, causing everyone to laugh even harder.
“Anyway,” Barbara Collins said with a twinkle in her eye. “We have an announcement to make.” She rolled her shoulders back, and Dare narrowed his eyes. “As you know, your father and I have been nearing the age of retirement for a while now, but we still wanted to run our inn as innkeepers rather that merely owners.”
“Finally taking a vacation?” Dare asked. His parents worked far too hard and wouldn’t let their kids help them. He’d done what he could by buying the bar from them when he retired from the force and then built the restaurant himself.
“If you’d let me finish, young man, I’d let you know,” his mother said coolly, though there was still warmth in her eyes. That was his mother in a nutshell. She’d reprimand, but soothe the sting, too.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and Fox coughed to cover up a laugh. If Dare looked behind him, he figured he’d see Loch hiding a smile of his own.
Tabby laughed outright.
Damn little sisters.
“So, as I was saying, we’ve worked hard. But, lately, it seems like we’ve worked too hard.” She looked over at his dad and smiled softly, taking her husband’s hand. “It’s time to make some changes around here.”
Dare sat up straighter.
“We’re retiring. Somewhat. The inn hasn’t been doing as well as it did back when it was with your grandparents, and part of that is on the economy. But part of that is on us. What we want to do is renovate more and update the existing rooms and service. In order to do that and step back as innkeepers, we’ve hired a new person.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Dare asked, frowning. “You can’t just hire someone to take over and work in our building without even talking to us. And it’s not like I have time to help her run it when she doesn’t know how you like things.”
“You won’t be running it,” Bob said calmly. “Not yet, anyway. Your mom and I haven’t fully retired, and you know it. We’ve been running the inn for years, but now we want to step away. Something you’ve told us we should do. So, we hired someone. One who knows how to handle this kind of transition and will work with the construction crew and us. She has a lot of experience from working in Philly and New York and will be an asset.”
Dare fisted his hands by his sides and blew out a breath. They had to be fucking kidding. “It sounds like you’ve done your research and already made your decision. Without asking us. Without asking me.”
His mother gave him a sad look. “We’ve always wanted to do this, Dare, you know that.”
“Yes. But you should have talked to us. And renovating like this? I didn’t know you wanted to. We could have helped.” He didn’t know why he was so angry, but being kept out of the loop was probably most of it.
His father signed. “We’ve been looking into this for years, even before you came back to Whiskey and bought the bar from us. And while it may seem like this is out of the blue, we’ve been doing the research for a while. Yes, we should have told you, but everything came up all at once recently, and we wanted to show you the plans when we had details rather than get your hopes up and end up not doing it.”
Dare just blinked. There was so much in that statement—in all of those statements—that he couldn’t quite process it. And though he could have yelled about any of it just then, his mind fixed on the one thing that annoyed him the most.
“So, you’re going to have some city girl come into my place and order me around? I don’t think so.”
“And why not? Have a problem with listening to women?”
Dare stiffened because that last part hadn’t come from his family. No. He turned toward the voice. It had come from the woman he’d seen the night before in the green dress.
And because fate liked to fuck with him, he had a feeling he knew exactly who this person was.
Their newly hired innkeeper.
And new thorn in his side.