Chapter One

Truth is ever to be seen in the contrast of choices. Oftentimes, truth comes in cool and comforting, easing the body and even soothing the soul. Just as often, truth enters with a crash so loud, so bright, only the brave cannot turn away, forcing all others to cower and hide. More often than not, the magnitude of a truth, its mass and gravity, crushes those who witness its awesome power, breaking them to dust under a heavy and unbending force. But like the phoenix, through truth’s destructive and giving burden, the strong, the brave, and the willing can rise again, higher and higher, leaving those who are too afraid to accept truth’s embrace far, far behind and unaware.

Months before A+O

Owen Brown pulled his old green truck to a stop across the street from the roadhouse just outside Columbus, Ohio. Hardly surprising for a Saturday night, even at this early hour, the parking lot was packed full of trucks and a few random cars. It was a good thing. Tim and Aurei had been kind to him and his, and the two owners could use the business after a long off-season.

Owen slipped from the old truck, his boots landing on uneven ground yet holding firm. Well muscled with experience beyond his twenty-six years, he moved to the back of the covered bed.

Owen turned and pulled open the shell over his truck’s long bed. The tinted glass flipped up and out of his way. The tailgate fell open with a familiar rocking clang. Owen moved with a fast, practiced motion, sliding the long white cooler, heavy with a fresh load of ice, from the bed of the truck. It took effort, but after years tending bar and lugging endless musical equipment, coupled with a life always in motion, the ice and cooler were light work.

Setting the cooler on the ground, closing the tailgate, closing the shell, Owen didn’t bother to lock up the bed. There wasn’t anything in the back anyone would want. He picked up his load of ice and headed across the street.

He was not fast, wasn’t slow, in making his climb around back of the semi remote roadhouse. He moved to the screen door without problems, the weight of the large cooler filled to the brim with heavy ice a burden but one he had accepted when he told Tim he could make the run to collect the much-needed supply for the current patrons.

Young Max had offered to join him. The twenty-two-year-old was good company at times, but as of late, the kid had started to talk a little too much. Max also enjoyed practicing his card tricks. Tonight, with the bar filling up, Owen had been wanting some quiet time before the long night of serving drinks and dealing with drunken customers.

Owen’s booted foot caught the aluminum border of the screen frame that didn’t sit perfectly flush any longer. He shifted the white cooler as he opened the door and walked in.

The difference in sound from outside to in was noticeable and grated on his nerves as he passed into the back of the kitchen. The roadhouse was a twenty-four-hour bar with its Open sign never turning off, and that was a good thing for Owen and his crew. But it also meant there was a fair amount of work to be done, and customers always came first.

“You got the ice,” Daphne greeted with cheer. “Good thing. We’re getting slammed out there. Aurei will need some up front. She’s getting low. I heard her asking Tim when you would be back when I went up there last.”

Owen saw the faint flush of her cheeks and couldn’t help the tingle of fear as Daphne forced herself to look away. The innocent crush was fading but not gone. Not yet.

“Got it, thanks. How is everything going back here?” Owen asked, trying to keep the question innocent, neutral.

The difference in age wasn’t huge, and yet the difference in life and maturity was vast. He’d hoped her crush would have faded by now. Daphne was young, only seventeen, and vulnerable on more than one level. On weekends and nights, he always tried to keep her in the back, where she was safe, and that meant she was the permanent dishwasher for as long as his people stayed here or until she turned eighteen.

Not that eighteen was too far away, thank the Lord. Daphne had only been with his group for a couple of months, and she was fitting in nicely. She didn’t cause problems and was willing to throw in a helpful hand. If only she would stop blushing every time he walked into the room.

At least she isn’t trying to flirt with you anymore . . .

“Oh, you know, dishes come in dirty, they leave clean. Same old, same old. I have no idea how Aurei and Tim managed this place on nights like this before us. It’s crazy out there. I think there might even be a line outside,” Daphne said.

Setting the cooler down, Owen snatched the empty, clean, white plastic ice-cream container and began shoveling fresh ice into the old brown ice machine. Its cooler still worked, so the ice he was putting in wouldn’t melt. Maybe tomorrow he could find time to see if he could fix the water pump so trips to the twenty-four-hour gas station were no longer necessary.

“No line outside, not yet. Based on the number of trucks, we will have to start holding people back soon.”

Owen looked up and couldn’t help but notice Daphne was far too skinny. She wore skinny black jeans around a too-small waist, and the material was starting to look loose. Basic white sneakers she somehow kept clean and a deep red, almost burgundy sweater that was cut to ribbons in the back. The black tank underneath thankfully didn’t allow for much skin to show whenever she walked into a room. His concern grew as she continued to wash. She was smart and talented, but for some reason, she would forget to eat. It had taken him far too long to notice the habit as he had tried to let her crush dissipate. Now her lack of eating was another concern on his list that never seemed to stop growing.

“Are we going to have enough food? The fridge froze yesterday,” Daphne said.

“I already fixed the fridge, and we restocked. It’s all good now.”

“I am just saying that Tim and Aurei could use more than one or two things working around here.”

The words she was thinking were clear in the space between them. This is a temporary arrangement. What are Aurei and Tim going to do when we all leave? When we have to go because it is no longer safe, because of me.

“Don’t worry about a place like this. Tim and Aurei had it long before we got here. Everything will keep working long after we’re gone.”

“Yeah, I know, Owen, but they are good people,” Daphne said, with the sound of soapy water and sponge hard at work behind her words.

“They are at that.”

The cooler of ice was almost half empty. Seeing it as such, Owen judged he had taken enough out for now. Setting the makeshift ice scooper to the side, he shut the lid to both cooler and ice machine, picking up the white cooler once more.

“Okay Daphne, wish me luck. I’m going in.”

“Yeah, like you need luck out there.” She rolled her eyes like a sister might, and Owen found it was nice to see.

“Hey, Tim. Hey, Max,” Owen said while passing down the hall.

Owen looked to his right as he carried the cooler past the opening to the kitchen, Tim and Max both hard at work over the long grill and deep fryer. The grease fans and a box fan were both on high, competing with the sounds of sizzling grease and music coming from the bar.

“Hey, Owen!” Max said while flipping out two plates and loading them up with burgers and fries.

Both older man and younger worked in unison, even as their appearance was in contrast. Max was coming close to six feet at twenty-two years of age and still growing, but his body was long and lanky, like it didn’t belong to him. Tim, on the other hand, was even taller and built like a mountain, with a personality to match: slow to rise, with a gravity that could only be described as grounding.

Tim gave him a small nod and, without a word, went back to working his grill. The silent nod was more than what the half owner of the roadhouse normally said. Owen took the gesture as friendly.

Working together over the last month, he and Tim had come to a quick understanding between the two of them, even sharing a couple of beers after work on occasion. There wasn’t conversation so much, but that wasn’t what mattered with a guy like Tim.

Owen respected Tim’s calm control and easy nature. And Tim, it seemed to him, had needed to see Owen was more than just a pretty face. All the work and effort around the bar, coupled with keeping his own people in line, had helped to win the bigger man over.

Leaving Tim and Max to their work, Owen made his way farther down the well-worn hall, getting closer and closer to the heart of the night’s event. People’s voices mixed with the latest band rolling through that had made a quick contract with Aurei to play tonight.

“Ice coming in!” Owen announced over the noise as he pushed the long cooler through the Wild West-style doors. They swung open for him, the hinges squeaking as he made his way into the action.

The bar was packed full with people ranging from twenty-one to early sixties. The patrons were dressed in every type of outfit, from the well-groomed to the motley. People wanting any number of drinks, food and shots were crammed in like peanuts in a long row and several deep, trying to get the attention of the three people tending bar.

Owen ignored the looks that came his way as he moved the ice chest to Aurei’s side on the left, where she was slinging drinks and warding off friendly attention in equal measure.

Aurei, early fifties and still a fox with short black hair and a wicked smile, was on his left. Her butt was tight, and she carried a painted sleeve of a dragon sleeping in a sea of daisies on her left arm. The ink work was solid and hadn’t begun to fade.

She was the kind of woman who could throw a punch as easily as she could place a gentle hand on your back, depending on what was needed. Owen couldn’t help but like her, as they all did. With her demeanor, it wasn’t any wonder this place reminded him of home. A home he hadn’t seen in a very long time.

On his right were the remaining two of his people. Smooth and steady Jessie, and working beside him, the continually moving and oftentimes over-the-top Clover. Both two years his junior at twenty-four years old.

The first worked with a smooth, no-nonsense rhythm. The latter was bouncing and bopping as she moved, gliding and even twirling at times, as if she were always in a hurry to make drinks, flirt and take in cash. Both were attractive-Jessie with his long lines and solid good looks and calming demeanor. But Clover, well, even he had to admit Clover held an internal music that never turned off or down.

“Oh good, you’re here. I’m almost out,” Aurei said, indicating the ice and signaling him over, the tight quarters causing their bodies to squeeze together as he went past. Her smile he found genuine.

He could feel the low-lying pull of chemistry between them. Nothing to act on, not that she ever would, but just a small zip up the spine that made for a smile. Seven years ago, back when he was still in Miami, he would have tried to ride that chemistry to something greater. But that was before the long road alone, back when he had thought he had nothing to lose.

Jessie gave him a small nod over his shoulder from the other end of the bar. At the same time, he opened two bottles of beer using only his hands. With a gentle, easy motion, Jessie tossed the metal caps over his shoulder five feet into the trash without looking. His patrons made a noise of appreciation in reaction. The bottles hadn’t been twist-offs and Jessie hadn’t used a bartender’s tool, making it look like magic.

Owen gave a hard nod in return.

“Ice machine is already half filled in the back,” he said to Aurei. “You want me to make another trip right now?” Owen spoke loudly. Between the band playing and the crowd, there wasn’t much of a choice if he wanted to be heard.

“No, that’s okay. The grill closes in another hour. I can send Tim for ice then. I need a hand with drinks. We just got another wave, and as they say, time is money.”

“No problem.” Owen made quick work of transferring ice using the clear scooper that was already there for just such a reason.

Working to fill the front icebox, Owen stayed in close to the cooler while waiting for Aurei to count out change. The moment she was done, he stood, scooping out some ice for a set of four drinks. Working in tandem was second nature, hardly surprising after being raised in a busy club.

“Aurei, by any chance, did you see if Daphne ate something before the crowd got here?”

“Tim made her some food. She ate with us.”

“Okay. Thanks.” He felt relief and mentally crossed it off the list of things he needed to get done. He wanted to have a sit-down with Daphne, but the flush of her cheeks said it still wasn’t time.

“Yeah, no problem. What do you think of the band? They’re pretty hot right now. They came in with twenty of their own people.” Aurei’s hands were moving as she poured three beers at once from the row of taps and deftly snatched a twenty out of an offered hand.

Owen didn’t need to listen or take a moment. An extra compartment in his brain was already running a commentary.

Their bass player isn’t in time with their drummer; he keeps getting pulled off. And their lead guitarist’s fourth string is starting to slip out of tune. He needs to adjust. Their sound guy should soften the vocals and heighten the pitch. And their keyboarder should take up knitting instead of doing whatever the hell he thinks he is doing. He can’t decide what sounds he wants, and by the time he does, the band has moved on.

Excerpted from Harmony of Fire by Brian Feehan. Copyright © 2022 by Brian Feehan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.