IF ASKED, Ryder Waites would say the reason he decided to sell his family’s recipe to Bluegrass Bourbon in Lexington was because no one tried to speak to him in Good Ol’ Boy.
Ryder was from Gallows Grove, Kentucky, and every single person he met with knew it. Ryder would sit down with Mr. So-and-So or Ms. This-and-That. They’d open their mouths and Ryder would hear the worst approximation of a Kentucky drawl ever.
They should be ashamed of themselves. Some of them—many of them—were also from Kentucky, and if they thought Ryder was stupid enough to believe that accent was real, then there was no way he was selling them anything. He’d find some other way to keep the family business afloat. Trying to “relate” to him by sounding like a stereotype? Insulting.
Bluegrass Bourbon was Ryder’s last chance, and his hopes weren’t very high when he went to Lexington to meet with Garrett Wood. But Wood’s Kentucky accent was subtle, an inflection on the Os that made him sound like he was from Northern Kentucky, closer to Cincinnati. The way he said “Please?” instead of “Excuse me” told Ryder he was right. People heard Kentucky and thought bourbon and horse racing, but Garrett Wood’s Kentucky was more Cincinnati-style Chili and sausage-mush Goetta.
Wood also didn’t suggest changing the name. Gallows Grove had been making Hanged Man Bourbon for so long, Ryder couldn’t imagine calling it anything else. Ryder was also angling to get Gallows Grove as a stop on the Bourbon Trail, because that would bring much-needed revenue in tourist dollars to the tiny town. Gallows Grove was a blip on the map between Lexington and Pikeville, Kentucky, with fewer than five hundred residents. Ryder refused to give up the recipe and have it distilled anywhere but his hometown, and that was a sticking point for the other companies he met with. Wood couldn’t promise the stop on the Trail without some buy-in from investors, but that was the first step toward achieving his goal and getting the distillery some essential improvements.
But Wood seemed amenable to Ryder’s plans, and there was only one small requirement that Ryder didn’t like. Wood insisted on sending a guy down to “gather some initial data,” and while that set off some warning bells in Ryder’s head, he couldn’t see a reason why he should refuse. That Adam Keller guy would show up, write up some reports, and be out of Ryder’s hair. Wood and his company would see that the bourbon was a valuable addition to their line, and investors would clamor to provide the necessary monetary means to put Gallows Grove on the Trail. Ryder’s town wouldn’t fade into memory, leaving him standing alone in front of the Last Meal Diner with a bottle of Hanged Man Bourbon, possibly haunted by generations of his infuriated ancestors.
ADAM KELLER showed up the following Tuesday, a week after Ryder returned home from signing over the recipe to Bluegrass. Ryder triumphantly reported back to the townsfolk that he’d arranged to get improvements on the distillery, which would hopefully lead to a spot on the Bourbon Trail. The town responded by badgering him about where the hell they were supposed to put a parking lot and bemoaning the influx of crime the tourists were sure to bring. But they grudgingly admitted he’d done a good job.
Ryder expected nothing less. He knew every man, woman, and child in Gallows Grove by name and had lived there his whole life. And he knew exactly how suspicious they were too. It went along with the whole “descendants of bootleggers” thing. He made sure they knew that Wood was sending a company man, reminded the town that they needed to make a good impression when the guy got there, and sincerely hoped that was the end of his entrepreneurial career. He’d manage the distillery like he’d been doing since he graduated nearby Elliott County High School, cut himself a paycheck, and bask in the knowledge that he’d saved his small town from extinction—even if they bitched about a parking lot.
Of course it wasn’t that easy.
“Ryder.” Heather Combs, the office manager at the distillery, came barreling into the office breathlessly on Tuesday morning. “The Lexington boy’s here. And he’s cute.” She gave him an encouraging smile. “Maybe he’s gay too and you two’ll hit it off. We’ll have us a gay weddin’ in our new parking lot. Show that Kim Davis we’re not all awful people.”
Gallows Grove defied every single stereotype people had about small towns in Kentucky. Ryder was gay. He had never shown any interest in the local girls, and everyone had known it since he was about thirteen years old. Most people just reacted to the news with a shrug and “Well, his ma was a witch. What did you expect?”
Ryder’s mother was a witch in the sense that she didn’t go to church and liked to talk to her plants. But she also read tarot cards—which is where Ryder got his name, after the Rider-Waite deck—and made a mean hot toddy, so apparently, that was enough to count. But she died from breast cancer when Ryder was fifteen, leaving him the distillery and a good-luck charm she buried beneath the floorboards. Her memory was like a photograph faded with age, but the thought of her still made him smile. She would have loved being part of the Bourbon Trail, and he just knew she would have set up a table with a colorful patterned silk throw to read the cards for visitors.
“Who said he was cute?” Ryder asked Heather suspiciously.
“It was Sadie,” Heather said, referring to her niece. “And Sadie reads People, you know. She’s up on her cute boys and whatnot.”
Ryder did know, because they had stacks of People, going back to 2001, piled up in the office. Come to think of it, maybe they should have cleaned before that Adam guy showed up.
“Anyway, Sadie says he went to Willy’s office.” Heather was in her midforties, and always, without fail, wore some kind of University of Kentucky paraphernalia on her person. That day it was a pair of earrings, sparkly little blue things with the distinctive UK logo. She started working at the distillery after she graduated high school too, and was some kind of cousin twice removed to Ryder. He figured he was related to probably everyone there in some way, which was another reason it was impossible to find someone to date.
“Willy’s office?” Willy McCrae was the town businessman, serving as a loan officer, notary public, and tax accountant. He’d been the mayor once or twice too. “I wonder why he went there?”
“Probably looking for a place to stay, wouldn’t you guess? Willy can help him out, since he’s got that Realtor license,” Heather continued thoughtfully as she perched on the desk. She was short—about five foot two—and still favored the sort of hairstyle that called for an obscene amount of hairspray. “About the only place I could think of is the Mancys’ place, and that’s… well, nobody wants to rent a room in the funeral home.”
Ryder shrugged. “Figured he’d just come in a few times a month from Lexington.” The alarm bells he didn’t want to listen to when he was negotiating the sale of the bourbon recipe started playing merrily in the background. It never occurred to him that anyone would actually want to stay in Gallows Grove. It hadn’t occurred to anyone else either, because the closest hotel was the Little Sandy Lodge, and that was still a bit of a drive. Ryder lived in a half-renovated apartment on top of the Trapdoor, the town bar, located in the small downtown area. There were a few more apartments on the list to “renovate” if more businesses opened up in the empty buildings, but none of them were anywhere close to habitable. Even if they were, Ryder didn’t want the Lexington man to be his neighbor. He wanted the Lexington man to stay in Lexington.
Before Ryder could process what to do about Mr. Lexington, his uncle Zeno, the bourbon master, strolled in. He was a strange man—even by Gallows Grove standards, even by Waites standards. He had the coal-black hair common to most Waites, and like Ryder, he had two different colored eyes—one blue, one green. In fact he and Ryder looked so much alike, Zeno was often mistaken for Ryder’s father. But Ryder’s mom, Maisie, was Zeno’s sister, and since Ryder’s dad split before he was born, he was the only real male authority figure in Ryder’s entire life.
Zeno lived with a woman named Eden Jones. They’d never bothered to get married, because they couldn’t agree where to go on a honeymoon. They couldn’t agree on baby names either, so they never had kids. When he wasn’t fussing over bourbon, Zeno liked to repair antique clocks. There was a constant ticking sound in their house that made Ryder want to jump out of a window every time he went over there.
“Hey, Uncle Z.” Ryder gave his uncle a fond smile.
Zeno’s strange eyes settled on Ryder. “I hear that Lexington boy is here.”
“He’s cute,” Heather piped up. “Sadie says so.” She coughed and gave Ryder a pointed look.
Ryder let that go. “How’s Aunt Eden?”
Marriage, or a lack thereof, didn’t make Zeno’s sweet-tempered partner any less Ryder’s aunt. Well, she was sweet tempered until a Kentucky basketball game came on, that was. Then she turned into a raving lunatic, like most everyone in the town. Like most everyone in Kentucky. When UK had lost to Wisconsin on the tail end of a perfect season in the NCAA tournament in 2015, the town had declared a day of mourning and Ryder gave everyone free whiskey. Ditto when UK’s hated rivals, the Duke Blue Devils, won the championship. Which none of them watched, because—well, because it was Duke.
Being invested in sports teams meant a lot of drinking away your sorrows.
“She’s fine. Says to call her if you want that old chair of ours for your apartment, but you probably don’t. Cat’s been sitting on it for years.” His uncle crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Ryder. “What are you gonna do about that Lexington boy? Told you it was a bad idea to let them send someone.”
Ryder resisted the urge to roll his eyes. How exactly would he have stopped that? It wasn’t like he could have said no. “It’ll be fine, Uncle Z. Just trust me. I did pretty good so far, didn’t I?”
“Thank goodness Maisie put that charm under the floorboards,” Zeno said dourly. “I got some barrels to check. You keep this kid out of my way, Ryder.”
Since the whole point of “this kid” being in town was to check things out, that seemed next to impossible. Ryder just sighed, ran a hand through his messy black hair, and said, “I’ll do my best, Uncle Z.” Time to go find Mr. Lexington.