Small Town Big Man by Penny Wylder

1

Laney

Him? No.

My eyes dance around the small bar, moving between the few patrons inside. This isn't going well at all.

Maybe him? Not a chance.

Man, this whiskey is strong.

There isn't one man in this room I can see myself fucking.My eyes keep shifting around the room, hoping to see just a single probable candidate for me to take home. I only need one, just one. Right now, I see none.

Sighing to myself, I lower my eyes to the glass of alcohol.A little more of this might help make the choice a little easier. . . Giggling to myself, I take another sip.

That woman lied. This isn't a hot spot at all.

At the grocery store today, the cashier told me this was the place to be, the Bear Claw Saloon. She made it sound like a hot night club, a club that would be filled with lots of people out to have a good time.

Glancing down the long bar, I see an old man at the end, wearing a thick, ratty winter coat, with worn patches on the elbows. He puts down another shot and burps into his hand as he lets out a loud cackle to no one but himself.

There's a couple at the pool table showing a little too much PDA, and another guy being a little too loud at the bar as he talks with the bartender, telling her how he thinks Sasquatch stole his good hunting knife and he can prove it.

What the hell am I doing here?

Sitting at the small wooden table, it wobbles slightly as I stir the thin straw and move around the ice inside my glass. I can feel the heat of the alcohol as it hits my belly and warms me all over.

All I want is to have a good time and forget the reality I'm currently living in. It should be simple, at least that's what I thought.

Throwing back the rest of the whiskey in my glass, I cough slightly as it burns the back of my throat.

“Need another, hun?” the waitress asks as she stops at my table with a tray of food going to the couple.

Glancing up, I'm met with a friendly smile. The woman has bright red hair and looks to be in her sixties. There are deep lines at the corner of her eyes as her lips pull back, and her smile lines are well formed. She's lived through some shit, that's for sure.

Her shirt has a giant bear paw on it, and the black apron wrapping her hips looks worn and tattered. Giving me another smile, she glances at her tray of food. “Or I can bring you some food. You just tell me what you need.”

“Another, please,” I say, shaking the empty glass. “And keep them coming.”

“You got it,” she says with a wink. “Whatever you're running from, I'll help you keep it at bay.”

“Thanks,” I answer as she scoops up my glass and walks off.

She's back within seconds, setting the drink down in front of me. “So,” she says, wiping her hands down her apron and leaning her forearms on the back of the chair across from me, “where you from? I've never seen you in here before, and it ain't really tourist season just yet.”

“It's that obvious, huh?” I ask, giggling as I adjust in my seat.

“I've lived in this town my whole life, and I've worked here for almost thirty years. I know a new face when I see one.”

“I'm not from any place special, I can tell you that.” Curling my fingers around the glass, I take a long sip. “But this is my fresh start. I'm renting a cabin up on the mountain from—”

“Let me guess,” she cuts in, “Marla Crawford?” I nod yes, and she gives me a smile. “That's what I figured. It's a small town, hun, get used to people knowing who you are before you know them.”

“Oh,” I say with a half laugh. “Will do.”

“My granddaughter loves those doodle pads.” She drops her eyes to the book on the table next to me.

“This is just a sketch pad. I figured I could get some work done too while I'm here.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Are you getting any work done?”

Laughing, I shake my head. “Sadly no, it's not working out how I thought it would.”

“Well, my name's Candice. You just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Laney,” I say, tapping my pencil against the pad. “And thank you.” Throwing my head back, I down the drink. “How about another?”

“You got it, hun.” she says.

She walks away and I open my sketch pad. Since this place is dead, I might as well not waste my time. Putting the pencil to the paper, I'm at a loss. Nothing is swirling in my brain, just an alcohol haze that's starting to take over.

My veins are hot, my muscles are tingling, and I can feel the fog as it starts to settle over me.

The door swings open and a gust of cold winter air sweeps through the bar, causing the papers in my sketch pad to ruffle. Lifting my head up, I see a man as he turns his back to me and moves to the table by the door.

His shoulders are covered in a thin sheet of snow. As he pulls off his jacket, he gives it a shake, knocking the snow to the ground. Folding the jacket over his chair, he pulls it out and sits down.

He ruffles his hair, brushing the snow off his head, and takes the menu from the holder on the table. I can just make out the side profile of his face, but not his features.

Candice crosses the room, and the two chat for a minute. She walks away, returning a few minutes later, and setting a bowl down in front of him.

I'm trying to see his face, but I can't because my vision is a little fuzzy now, and this angle makes is hard to get a good look. And I’m feeling a little wobbly on my chair as I try to lean to the side for a better view.

Oops. The liquor is definitely kicking in. . .

Pursing my lips, I twist the tip of the pencil against the paper and debate if I should at least give one person a shot tonight. What the hell is the point of even being here if I'm just going to sit alone, and not even try to pick up at least one guy?

Standing up, I adjust my skirt and finish the rest of my drink for an extra boost of liquid courage. I might embarrass myself, and that's okay, this extra layer of alcohol should wash away every last fuck I have.

In a tight V-neck shirt that shows plenty of cleavage, and a short white skirt with thigh highs, my sneakers are soundless against the rickety wood floor. The chucks on my feet are my lucky shoes, it made sense to wear them if I really want to end this night by getting laid.

This is the whole point I'm here.

“Hey,” I say, my voice low and sexy as I sit down across from the man, now eating.

The lighting above his table is dim, casting a dark shadow across his face. His hair hangs down over his forehead, almost covering his eyes, and a thick beard paints his jaw. His shoulders are broad, and his hands look huge as he holds the thin stem of the spoon.

“Hi,” he says back as he keeps his head down, spooning food into his mouth.

“Whatcha eating?”

“Gumbo.”

“Sounds good.” I'm trying, I'm really trying to entice this man into a conversation, but I'm getting nothing back.

“Yeah.” He slurps another spoonful.

“You have a name?”

“I do, just like you have probably have someplace else to be. Right?” he counters me, his voice annoyed and borderline rude.

“Okie-dokie,” I say, slapping the top of the table lightly. “Hint taken.”

Getting up, I head back to my table, and Candice brings me another drink. “Don't mind him. He has his routine and he sticks to it.”

“Yeah, he made that clear.” She gives me a tender smile, then moves back behind the bar. My head goes down as I try to focus again on drawing, and still all I'm coming up with is blankness.

“Hey, I haven't seen you here before.” A man's voice chimes in my ear as he pulls out the seat at my side and sits down.

“Um, yeah, I'm new around here.” My heart skips a beat as a sliver excitement scales down my spine. Finally!

Looking up with a flirty smile, my heart sinks and I'm instantly turned off. My smile quickly folds into a half frown.

He smirks, his teeth yellow and his skin extremely pale. He's got greasy brown hair that's slicked back, and he's wearing a tie-dye shirt with a howling wolf on the front. His breath reeks of alcohol and tobacco, and his voice is scratchy.

“A pretty lady like you. . .” His voice trails off as he leans in, and gently reaches up to try and touch my hair.

Jerking my head away, I clear my throat. “You're from here I take it?” I'm trying to be nice. I don't want to create any enemies, but he isn't going to be the man I take home.

“You know it.” He licks his lips and scoots his chair closer. “So, I'm curious. You have black hair. . .”

“Yeah,” I say, my body curling into itself as I sit my hands in my lap, and I try to push further away. I don't like this man. He's creepy and making me uncomfortable. Red flags are waving everywhere.

“Well, does the carpet match the drapes?” His hand moves under the table, and he gently brushes his fingertips against my thigh.

Slapping his hand away, I jump up from my seat, sending it clattering backwards, and slug the guy in his face. My heart is pounding and suddenly I’m sober as a judge. My mouth is taut, hands balled at my sides, ready to hit him again if he tries anything else.

No one in the bar rushes to his side, everyone just goes silent and stares.

The punch knocked him right out of his chair, and he sits on the floor clenching at his eye. “You fucking hit me, you bitch!”

“I did fucking hit you, because you're a fucking asshole! Try and touch me again and I'll cut off your fucking fingers.” Glaring down at him, I grab my stuff and storm out of the bar.

I'm standing in snow over my ankles as I bust through the door. The air hits me like a ton of bricks, making it hard to breathe. It feels like my lungs are freezing every time I inhale. Wrapping my arms around my body, my teeth start to chatter and I'm shaking.

Fuck, it's cold out.

A gust of wind blows, shoving me forward and almost blowing me off my feet. I feel the chill go through my clothes and my whole body goes taut. Another gust of wind blows, this one stronger, and I’m momentarily blinded by my hair whipping in front of my face as I stumble forward, unable to brace myself from its power on the icy ground. My arms go out, ready to break my fall, when I'm quickly steadied and standing upright.

Firm hands hold me for a moment before letting go. Looking back over my shoulder, a man is wrapping my coat around my body.

“You forgot this,” he says, making sure I slip my arms in the sleeves.

“Thank you.” No wonder why I was so cold. How dumb to grab my sketch pad and leave my coat behind. Once my arms are in my coat, I find my bearings again, and brush my hair out of my face and steady myself. Turning around, I finally realize it's the grumpy man from the corner table.

He's much larger than I realized when I sat across from him inside. He towers over me. Six foot three, at least, with big, bold blue eyes and soft lips hidden in a light brown almost ginger mane around his face.

Wow. I'm struck by how handsome he is under the dark snowy sky.

“You okay to drive?” he asks.

“Oh, I didn't drive, I took a taxi here.” I teeter slightly in place as the alcohol rages through my system. “Didn't know it was going to snow like this, though.”

“I can give you a ride home if you want. There’s only one taxi service around here and they probably won't come out in this weather.”

You don't know him. . .

My brain tries to remind me of the good old fashioned stranger danger lessons I learned as a kid. And then the wind whips again, sending snow and ice into my face.

Screw it. It's fucking cold out.

“Sure.”

He doesn't say another word, just crooks his head for me to follow him. For every step he takes, I take two, and walk quickly to try to keep up with him, fighting against the wind and the blowing snow. We walk about a block like this before he stops at a dirty, rusty old truck, with holes over the fenders and mud covering the doors.

Opening the driver's side door, he leans over and pushes my door open. “The handle is broke, sorry.”

I hesitate, questioning myself now about getting in.

He grins lightly and rolls his eyes. “I'm not a serial killer if that's what you're wondering.”

Biting my lower lip, I sway back and forth as things start to blur.

“It's freezing out, just get in and I'll take you home.”

Climbing up, I sit on the bench seat as he starts the engine and lets it warm up for a minute. Warm air slowly trickles from the vents as he turns on the headlights and pulls away from the curb.

“Brrr,” I say rubbing the outside of my arms. I can feel the heat coming off the man, so I scoot a little closer to him. Holding out my hands to the vents in the center of the dashboard, I roll them back and forth. “Tell me this will get warmer.”

“That's about it, I’m afraid. She's old, but she gets me from A to B.” He glances at me from the corner of his eyes and asks, “So, where do you live?”

“Oh, um. . . I live right up on. . . uh. . .”

I can't remember. Where do I live?

Why is this night going so terribly wrong?

Tears start to well up in my eyes and I can't stop them. “I don't remember,” I say as I begin to cry. Covering my face, I sob. Man, I shouldn’t have had so much to drink. Not in my emotional state. What was I thinking? The whole dam is bursting open in this stranger’s truck.

Where the hell am I going to live when I get back to Silver Lake?

Am I even going to have a home?

Everything is up in the air. My entire life has been turned upside down, and I feel helpless. And on top of it all, now I'm crying like a fool in this guy's truck, my nose running, my chest heaving hard and fast as I ugly cry. These aren't pretty, tender tears, they're rabid, angry, hurting tears.

I'm sure my mascara is running down my cheeks, my lipstick is probably smeared, and I look like a hot mess.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,” I say as I try to dry my eyes and catch my breath. “I don't—” I can hardly speak as I try to breathe between my words. “I don't mean to cry like this. I don't know what's going on with me right now.”

“It's all right,” he says, taking a cautious look over at me. “You can stay at my place tonight if you want, and tomorrow once you're a little more levelheaded, I'll take you home.” He lays his hand on mine, giving it a tender squeeze. “Don't worry about it, you’ll get it straightened out tomorrow.”

His eyes draw me in, so big and clear and blue as the ocean. I'm leaning into him, falling freely into his gaze.

“Yeah, you’re right, that sounds good.”His words are soothing, calming me instantly.

The tears subside, my breathing levels, and the alcohol is doing its job. It's pushing me up the hill on the other side of the drop I just hit. I'm going home with a guy, it's exactly what I was looking for all night, although this wasn’t exactly the approach I’d been planning. Who knew a snot covered face and total emotional breakdown might reel one in?

Maybe I will get some tonight. . .