Stirring up the Sheriff(9)

By: Leslie North

"This isn't that nasty 'come butcher' stuff, is it?" he asked suspiciously.

"You mean kombucha?" Marianne laughed. "No. Believe me, I thought about whipping some up, but I think this will be a more acceptable nonalcoholic alternative."

Fuck it, Trent thought. He wasn't going to let Marianne think he was too afraid to try one of her concoctions. He threw his head back and took a long, deliberate swig. The liquid that rushed down his throat was refreshing and sugar-sweet. "Cream soda," he said in wonder as he pulled back from it. "I haven't had one of these since I was a kid. There used to be a shop just down the street that sold them."

"You like it?" Marianne's pretty face was turned up to him, her petal-pink lips blossoming in a smile. "I overheard a couple of people reminiscing about that shop the first day I got here. I figured I could put my skills to good use and offer a little stroll down memory lane. Not everything has to be shiny and new."

"You made this?" Trent realized it hadn't occurred to him just how talented Marianne had to be to pull this sort of thing off. He couldn't imagine the measurements, the timing, the math involved in creating something that sparkled with this much flavor. Marianne nodded in affirmation as she watched him. He wondered if he was the first person in Lockhart Bend to sample her wares.

"I have a setup in my garage that I've been brewing out of. I loved cream soda when I was a kid, too," she divulged. "I'm thinking about offering it to my underage clientele. What do you think?"

Trent didn't know how he felt about the idea of kids at the Honky Tonk. The bar had always been strictly a twenty-one-and-over operation. He found himself torn between the idea of losing the adults-only space and warming slightly to the mental image of families being able to gather together and enjoy the atmosphere.

If there's any atmosphere left to enjoy, Trent thought as he looked around. "I think all this is impressive," he said finally. "And you've got a lot of ideas."

It was the most diplomatic comment he could muster at present, but Marianne's eyes narrowed as if she knew he had more going on in his head than he said aloud. Trent raised the soda. "Mind if I polish this off?" He meant it as a peace offering.

"Of course, Sheriff. I don't mind at all if you finish your cream soda."

Trent chuckled despite himself, and some of the inflexibility in Marianne's mouth eased up. She laughed, too, as the two of them exited the brewing room and returned to the front of the Honky Tonk.

"How did it go?" Sabrina asked them brightly. She had a twinkle in her eye, and Trent knew she'd demand a fuller account of his private tour on the ride back to Wildhorse.

"Well, I can't deny she's got hustle," he admitted.

Marianne fisted her hands on her hips and glowered up at him. "And?" she prompted. "Don't keep us in suspense, Sheriff. I assume you're just bursting with ideas on how I might improve the place."

"The Honky Tonk doesn't need improvement," he stated. "I'll be honest with you, Marianne. I don't think the brewpub vibe you're going for is going to work. Lockhart Bend might be stuck in its ways, but it isn't stuffy."

"Stuffy?" Marianne repeated. "You really think that's what I'm going for?"

Behind her, Sabrina was gesticulating for Trent to cut himself off, but he couldn't stop himself. If Marianne didn't take his advice now, the Honky Tonk would suffer a loss in its customer base that she might not be able to recover, with the Tin Horseshoe right down the road. He didn't want to lose the Honky Tonk, but he also didn't want to lose her, right when he was just starting to get to know her a bit better.

"Of course I don't think that's what you're going for, but it's what you're going to get if you don't walk a careful line between the new and the established around here. You're not going to attract Lockhart Bend regulars with family-friendly cream soda and fancy expensive tastings. And now that you've torn out all the character pieces and replaced them…" He waved toward the spindly, identical stools lined up along the bar. "With this bland, modern junk, you've cut the bar's balls off."

"That's an interesting description you have there, especially when you consider this place has always been run, successfully, by women," Marianne snapped. "And while we're on the subject, you cowboys may care about your decorations, but I don't." She raised up on her toes to attempt to match him in height—not going to happen, Trent thought—but he was suddenly too aware that she had brought herself within easy kissing distance, and that he wanted to kiss her, even if they were fighting in full view of Sabrina. Even if locking lips appeared to be the last thing on Marianne's mind. "My brewpub's going to be warm, welcoming, and uncluttered. It doesn't need all that kitschy excess. Sorry," she added quickly to Sabrina, who shook her head and gave the thumbs-up at the description of the stuff she intended to haul away. Kitsch was Sabrina's bread and butter. "I'm going to brew great beer, and I'm going to serve the hell out of it. That's all a place needs to be successful."