Excerpt: Hearts Under Fire

Maxwell you-can-just-call-me-Clark squinted down at the empty shelf behind the dark oak bar and sighed.

The towels were missing. Again.

“Heather!” Clark bellowed in a beleaguered baritone and waited for the other participant in this long-standing game to appear. Heather knew Clark was obsessive about the placement of the towels he used to wipe the bar, and he swore Heather moved them sometimes so she could tell him yet again of the joys of anti-anxiety medication.

“I’ve got ’em, I’ve got ’em!” came the reply, and Heather burst through the swinging door that led into Glow’s kitchen. Tonight was a modest night for Heather. She wore leather leggings and a mod-tuxedo top, and her midnight blue nails matched her short spiky hair.

Clark eyed the ensemble and the new dye job as Heather approached with an armful of terrycloth towels. “Are we going for winter fairy or midnight mistress?” he asked mildly. Heather put the towels on their shelf.

“Gothic Smurfette, actually,” she retorted. “There. You have your damned towels, O Compulsive One.”

Clark grunted. “Why do I employ you again?”

Heather stood up and grinned at him. In her heels, she was nearly eye-level with Clark’s even six feet. Her lip rings glinted at Clark as her mouth moved. “Because secretly you adore me and hope to father my alien lovechild.”

Eyes rolling to consider, Clark hummed. “Me? Father a child upon my Gothic Smurfette? Not likely. Alien, however, I could be.”

“I’m thinking you’re from Pluto,” Heather said solemnly.

“I don’t even get a real planet for a home?” Clark shook his head and leaned on the bar, mouth twitching as he suppressed mirth. “You’re so cruel to me, O Mistress of the Deep Blue.”

Heather winked. “You say the sweetest things, Admiral.”

Now Clark smiled. “Still just Sergeant. And still most definitely retired.”

“Well, you’ll always be Admiral-Able to me.”

Clark finally laughed, and Heather grinned in triumph. “Do you plan these bad puns somehow? Or are you just naturally talented?” Clark asked as he watched Heather fill one of the sinks behind the bar with soap and water.

“I’m all sorts of talented. Jeffrey, however, is not. He forgot to do the order last night.”

Groaning, Clark squeezed by Heather to head toward the kitchen. “I have got to fire that kid.”

“You say that every week,” Heather reminded Clark sweetly.

“I mean it every week. It’s my damned bar. Why do I have to do all the work?”

Heather made some suitably sarcastic comment, but Clark was already in the kitchen. He nodded at the cook, Ken, who stood at the back door of Glow smoking like an inmate on death row.

“You see the new blue?” Ken asked.

“She makes it look good,” Clark replied.

Ken snorted and dragged on his cigarette.

Clark walked into his office to sit at his desk. The chair creaked as he pulled up the inventory system and put in the standard weekly order. It took ten minutes, and the system sent the request to various supply houses automatically.

God bless technology.

Clark had just pulled up his email when a lithe, panting figure appeared in the doorway. The boy had stylishly shaggy black hair, was dressed in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, and leaned dramatically against the metal frame, one hand fluttering at his neck.

“Oh God. I did it again.”

“Yep,” Clark replied.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Yep.” Clark said again.

“Am I fired?”


“For real fired or just, like, the ‘You’re kinda pissed but forgive me ’cause I have a really good excuse, and I’ll share the details if you let me work’ fired?” Jeffrey bit his lip, and he braced his shoulder on the doorframe.

“Is this excuse tall?” Clark asked.

“Oh yeah,” Jeffrey replied, hips rolling forward.

“Dark hair?”

“Mm-hmm. Blue eyes, barely legal, barely dressed—hell, barely spoke English.”

Clark sighed and swiveled a level gaze to Jeffrey, who was, Clark knew, a good kid in need of a steady environment and steadier income to support himself and his mother. Jeffrey hesitantly smiled.

“You stay ’til close every night you work this week, obey Heather without whining, and I expect a drawing of Mr. Tall, Dark, and Non-Multi-Lingual on my desk before close.”

“Done deal, boss,” Jeffrey said, fidgeting. The boy never stayed still, which was amazing, considering he could paint and draw like no one Clark’d ever seen, and that required quite a bit of focus, Clark knew.

“And thanks,” Jeffrey added softly.

“Everything okay?” Clark asked.

Jeffrey shrugged and crossed his arms, head down. “Mom’s out of the seventy-two-hour observation and back home. Taking her meds again like she should, and she tells me she’s not going to see Nate The Drunk-Ass Boyfriend Number 431 ever again, but we’ve all heard that before.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and Clark’s heart ached for the innocence in the gesture. “What can I say? Schizophrenic parents for the loss, man.”

Clark nodded, familiar with Jeffrey’s dance of denial, belittlement, and escape. “Do what you need to do. Don’t worry about the order.”

Jeffrey’s entire body relaxed with those words, and he was about to say something when Clark heard the swinging door into the bar hit the kitchen wall with a bang.

“Jeffrey!” Heather caterwauled. “Get out here and get the soda machines ready, or I’ll fire you!”

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