Jennifer Blake is a quiet girl in Minnesota who prefers to mind her own business. When things get rocky at home, she seeks refuge at a local bar. Owner Erik Johansen takes notice of her increasingly frequent visits, and he urges her to trust him. She soon realizes that his compassion is not all she desires.
“Wrong choice. No great story starts with a salad.”
She paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. “What?”
The bartender leaned his forearms against the edge of the counter. “Oh, I’m sorry, Jennifer. Was that piece of lettuce supposed to be your ticket to adventure?”
She looked at her meal blankly, then back up at the bartender with the same cluelessness.
He grinned charmingly. “White or red?” He pulled a wine glass from beneath the counter and twirled it, waiting for her response.
She frowned. “How did you know my name?”
He selected a bottle without waiting any longer for her answer. “You paid with a credit card last time you were here. I would be a dick not to remember such a pretty face. Here, try this rosé to go with the walnuts in your salad.”
She barely mumbled a thank you before he winked and moved down the counter to another customer.
Jennifer had only stopped at the bar between work and home because she knew she was overdue for a trip to the grocery store, and she knew it was a mistake to go shopping on an empty stomach. She had come in search of food, not worldly advice.
Now that she had the advice—and a drink—she considered her “great story.”
Her career choices had been deliberate. Computer programming so she could interact minimally with other people, rarely face-to-face. A small, locally owned company so she could work flexible hours without losing her job. Fergus Falls to be near family, now just her brother since their parents had retired and traded Minnesota for Arizona.
She had attended school at a college along the border between Minneapolis and St. Paul. She had enjoyed experiencing the large metropolitan area for a while, yet she had been almost relieved to leave “the Cities” behind her. As a child, home had been a small rural town about an hour away from the main interstate, but as she established herself professionally, she realized that Fergus Falls was more to her adult liking. It had been near enough to see her parents any day of the week before they moved south, and it had helped her reconnect with her brother. It was close enough for the comfort of people that she had known her whole life but far enough to trade Jenny from down the street for Jennifer, the competent woman. She loved living in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes as much as any other Minnesotan, and the house she had purchased two years back had given her a solid sense of home.
She swallowed the last forkful of salad. Maybe her story wasn’t great, but it was certainly good enough for her.
* * * *
Erik slid a basket of peanuts across the bar to a random patron.
She watched him attentively. “How’s your sister?”
The woman asking about Zoe had never met her, but Erik returned the friendliness by answering, “She’s great. She said she’ll take off a week later this summer to bring her boyfriend around here.”
“Oh, that’ll be fun!”
Erik wasn’t so sure, but he smiled appreciatively before returning his attention to the slow line of drinkers awaiting refills.
Zoe was three years younger than Erik. She had spent her teen years complaining that the small city dragged her down but had completed her degree at the community college in Fergus Falls. She had been thriving in St. Cloud two hours away ever since.
Erik enjoyed reminding her that a population of 66,000 didn’t count as a big city, but still she loved it.
Perfect Martini, White Russian, Rob Roy—the drink requests felt unending, even on this uneventful Wednesday night. Erik wondered if half of the people knew even one ingredient in the drinks they ordered. What he wouldn’t give for a respectable client to appear.
He grinned when he saw the modest brunette resuming her seat from earlier in the evening. “Couldn’t stay away more than a few hours, huh?”
He failed to notice the pink splotching Jennifer’s ordinarily smooth face before teasing her, and he was immediately regretful. “Hey, what happened?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I just need a quiet place to be for a while.”
He glanced skeptically around the bar. It was by no means a busy night, but neither was it quiet. “Still drinking wine?”
“Yes, please.” Her not-quite-watery eyes drifted to the television hanging from the ceiling, putting an end to the bar talk.
He wanted to know more. She had visited his venue at least a dozen times in recent years, but never had he seen her so upset. He dug through memories of past encounters, searching for any other time that he may have overlooked her unhappiness, but he could recall none.
He tossed the empty bottle into a recycling bin and pushed her glass across the counter. When she reached inside her purse, he said, “This one’s on the house.”
He moved down the bar to fill other orders and to give his unhappy patron a little space, but he found himself glancing in her direction more than he should have.
The liquid in her glass was slow to vanish, though her fingers were in constant motion twirling the stem. Her green eyes spent much time on the screen overhead, but they held the glazed look of inattention. He was willing to bet he could comment on any one of the news stories without the least bit of recognition on her end.
Her glass finally emptied, but he waited to collect it until after delivering food to a table. He wanted an excuse to connect with her without the distance of the counter. He lightly touched the small of her back as he reached around her for the glass. “Would you like anything else?”
She glanced up at him, then quickly away. “No, thank you.”
He lowered his voice. “You gonna be okay?”