Cade McNaughton was in the zone. A few hours into a dance he had envied since he’d first stepped behind a bar a few weeks after his eighteenth birthday. Back then, watching people with far more experience balance hard work, casual chatter, and craft was powerful.
Now here he was, behind his own slab of polished wood. It had been scary when he and his brothers first decided to go big or go home, but almost two years later, the Tap House ran as smoothly as every other part of Foghorn Brewery.
Cade had made that happen. He passed glasses amid the mix of beer, food, and perfume. Tina waited at the end of the bar for him to pour the last drink of her order and then she was gone.
Smiling for no damn reason, he wiped his hands on the towel he kept tucked in the back pocket of his jeans and continued listening to Brandon, the owner of Petaluma Body Shop on the outskirts of old town, share his most recent bad-date story.
“She brought her mom?” Cade asked as he brought up a new crate of glasses.
Brandon nodded, shoving a wad of Foghorn’s loaded fries in his mouth. “Swear to Christ. Some shit about wanting to make sure I wasn’t a murderer.”
“So, how was the date after the mom checked you out and left?”
Brandon met his eyes and shoved more fries into his mouth.
“She… didn’t leave?”
Pointing at him in a “bingo” move, the guy he barely knew in high school shook his head and washed down his fries with a gulp of Naked Neck. Bad choice—the garlic in the loaded fries called for a light beer, but Brandon never ordered anything else.
“Man, that’s… You’ve got me. That’s bad.” Cade cashed out a couple who mentioned they were short on time before their movie and noticed the phone number scrawled at the bottom of the receipt as he cleared the spot next to Brandon. Call Me, it said above a San Francisco area code. The handwriting alone promised a good time. Tossing the dishes in the bin below the bar, Cade returned to get the receipt.
“Oh, come on.” Brandon snatched the slip of paper. “Jade wants you to call her. Did you even talk to her?”
Cade shook his head and was gone taking orders before returning to Brandon while he poured beer. “She was sitting right next to you. Why didn’t you get her number?”
Cade winced and gestured to the paper still on the bar. “Well, there it is. Give her a jingle. You could remind her that you were the quarterback in high school.”
“Dude, we’re over thirty. No one gives a shit about that anymore.”
Cade wanted to tell him no one gave a shit about that an hour after they graduated, but Brandon was having a rough night, rough month. While Cade enjoyed playing around, he didn’t kick people when they were down.
“How is it that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says My Blood Type is IPA, and your hair is all jacked up, but women love you?”
Cade lifted a brow, sliding another glass of beer under the tap.
“Well, maybe not love, but they want you. Damn, I should have never messed things up with Kelly. Do you think she’ll take me back?”
“Isn’t she engaged?”
Brandon pushed his plate away. “True. Another one bites the dust. Well”—he brushed the front of his flannel shirt—“I need to do something. Maybe I’ll get back to the gym and work on my ass.” He huffed and took out his wallet to pay the bill.
“What does your ass have to do with going on a reasonable date?”
Brandon finished the last of his beer and stood. “You honestly don’t have Instagram, do you?” He shook his head again as if Cade were some obscure freak of nature. He tossed a tip on the bar and was gone.
Several poured beers later, they had closed out happy hour, but the bar was still packed. With all orders in, the kitchen was slammed, so Cade did what he did best: he entertained.
“Give me a word, any word,” he said, arms splayed wide.
“That’s two words, and we all know what that means, ladies. I’m looking for a challenge here.”
“The word of the night is definitely fine with a capital… F,” another woman said, her gaze locked on Cade as if he should start running.
What the hell? Everyone normally loved this game. Cade glanced toward the kitchen. The crowd wasn’t restless yet, but he must be slipping because they played Give Me a Word all the time. Someone shouted out a word, Cade gave the definition and used it in a sentence. Sort of like a spelling bee if the participants were buzzed and eating burgers.
“Oh no, fine is not the right word. How about delicious?” another woman purred and high-fived the woman next to her, who had long braided hair that reminded Cade of the movie Avatar.
“Ladies, you’re losing me,” he said as some of the food arrived and he lined up five drink order tickets. Practically every face at the bar was in his or her phone, and Cade once again cursed social media. What was wrong with old school socializing? He flipped glasses and started pouring.
“Is that my pale ale?” Tina asked.
“She wants a slice of orange.” Tina rolled her eyes. She lost her patience when she was tired. Cade knew that about his favorite server now that they’d worked together for over a year.
“I’d offer you a break, but we haven’t been this busy on a Thursday since, well, ever.” He set four beers on her tray.
“The crowd seems a little off tonight, and why the hell is everyone looking at their phones? Why come out, you know?”
“It’s your body.”
“Aw, Tina, are you checking me out? What’s Pamela going to say when you get off work? She doesn’t seem like she’s up for sharing you.”
“No.” Her expression was unflinching as she added napkins and hoisted the tray. “I am not interested in your goods, but practically everyone else in the bar is. It’s all over Instagram.” Managing unbelievable balance, Tina pulled her phone from her back pocket without spilling a drop. After a few taps, she handed it to Cade and was gone. At the bell from the kitchen and Javier’s growl, Cade set Tina’s phone behind the bar and delivered orders. When he returned and flipped the phone over, Tina’s screen saver was on.
“What’s your password,” he asked after setting three more beers and sending her off again. After typing in the numbers she called out, the image filled the screen.
A white bed in a room he recognized. A man lay on his stomach, arms overhead, holding a pillow in a tangle of duvet. The guy was naked save an edge of sheet barely covering his ass-ets. Soft light, definitely early morning, for an instant his tired mind ticked off the details as if it were an inventory order before finally screaming—That’s you, idiot.
Cade touched the screen to make the image bigger, but the bell dinged again, and he went back to work. By the time he returned, Tina was holding her hand out for her phone.
“Not the best time to have a Jack and the Beanstalk tattoo, eh?”
Cade glanced at his arm, strangely embarrassed, and handed back her phone. “Who posted that? Where? How does everyone know about it?”
“I’m assuming it’s someone you know… intimately.” She laughed and when Cade didn’t, she stopped. “The poster tagged Foghorn. Most customers follow us, so now they’ve all—”
“Seen my ass.”
“Well, most of your ass.”
Cade set a pitcher of beer and three glasses on Tina’s tray.
She patted him on the shoulder and picked up her order.
“Wait a minute. Tagged, meaning that picture is on—”
“Cade.” Patrick’s voice, pissed and familiar, rang out over the crowd.
Tina winced and was gone.
“Get it down,” his brother and co-owner of Foghorn said, stepping behind the bar, phone in hand.
“Where did you even come from? I thought you were at home… nesting.” Cade slid past his older brother to grab two rolled sets of silverware and set them in front of a couple absolutely on their first date. Cade normally enjoyed watching people get to know one another, but not tonight.
“I was at home and now I’m here. Get it down.”
Heat that had nothing to do with the kitchen or the fact that he’d been going nonstop for the last five hours bloomed across Cade’s chest. He dropped off two orders and would have given anything to avoid returning to the other end of the bar. God, he hated it when Trick was on a rant.
“Could you give me a minute? I found out about it ten minutes ago. I don’t know who posted it. Maybe it’s not even me.”
Four women said at once, “It’s you.”
“Where would someone get a picture of my—”
“Lauren,” Aspen said, waddling toward him.
“Wow, both of you. Do you two have a Cade-Fucked-Up alarm that goes off in your house?”
“You remember Crazy-Eyes-But-Who’s-Looking-Above-the-Neck Lauren?”
“That’s not nice.” Cade wiped the bar in front of Aspen and pushed Trick toward his pregnant wife. Aspen, Foghorn’s business manager, married Patrick last year. She wasn’t always happy to work with Cade, but he knew deep down, way deep especially now, she loved him.
“I’m about to birth a human and your ex has tagged our business to screw with you because that seems to be what your exes like to do. I don’t care what you do in your private life, but I don’t have time to be nice. We are running a business here, Cade. You get that, right?”
Cade looked at his brother. There was no way he would ever tell his sister-in-law to back the hell up, but Trick had no intention of saving him.
“Right. I see how it is.” He tossed another set of dirty dishes into the bin.
Did she just ask him if he got that? Of course he did. He got everything. Even though he didn’t wear his stress on his sleeve, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a completely responsible third of their brewery. It was an unfortunate picture and he’d ask Lauren to take it down, or at least get rid of the tag, but it’s not like he’d posted it himself. And what the hell did Aspen mean by “that seems to be what your exes do?”
What the hell? He’d been on top of everything less than an hour ago and now, after one picture, he was relegated to an irresponsible exhibitionist who dates crazies.
“I’ll take care of it,” Cade said.
Patrick stepped behind the bar and followed him. “No, that’s not—”
Cade spun with anger he hadn’t felt in years. They were chest to chest. “Back the hell up,” he said softly without a hint of his usual jest. “I didn’t post the picture. Someone else did and I’m embarrassed enough. If you were acting like my brother instead of my damn leader, you would understand that.”
Patrick didn’t back down, but he took in a breath and his expression softened.
“I will get it taken down.”
“I will text her once you get out of my face, and if that doesn’t work, after working this ten-hour shift, I’ll call her.”
They stood for a beat, orders piling up, and then broke apart.
Patrick and Aspen left and once Cade caught up and pushed away the resentment, he texted Lauren.
Cade: Lauren, take it down.
Lauren: Hey, babe. Take what down?
Cade kneaded the back of his neck with one hand. There were so many reasons he and Lauren hadn’t worked out.
Cade: You tagged the brewery. I need you to take it down or at least remove the tag.
Lauren: Why? I’ll bet your buns are good for business.
Cade: We’re not running that kind of business.
Lauren: Sure you are. I’ll bet the bar is packed. You think those women, and I’ll bet several men, are there for your beer?
Cade: I do.
Lauren: You always were too humble for your own good, babe.
Cade let out a steady breath and almost smiled before his phone vibrated again.
Lauren: If we can get together.
He should have known better than to think it would be that easy. Before he could ask where and when she’d replied.
My place. ASAP.
Cade replied, slipped his phone into his pocket, and instantly, what used to be fun and flirty felt stupid and dirty. He knew what “get together” meant in Lauren’s language. She’d ended their relationship a year ago, but he’d do what was needed to clean up this mess.
“Cadre,” Tina said when she returned to the bar, the crowd finally easing up.
“You asked for a word. I’m giving you one. Cadre.”
“A unit of trained people. She had a cadre of servers at her disposal,” he said, barely aware of his own voice.
“You’re a smart guy, Cade.”
“Yeah? Could you post that on Instagram?”
She laughed, and Max slid behind the bar and fastened his apron. They’d hired a relief bartender a few months ago. Cade could finally have some time off after a two-year stretch at full speed while they were bringing up the Tap House.
Following a fist bump and a quick bar rundown where Cade told Max who was drinking what, Cade was untying his apron and calling it a night. When he walked out into the early night air, the sky was dark and the stars were crisp as if he could reach up and touch them. The sky used to fascinate him as a kid. He could point out all the major constellations. He threw his leg over his bike and pulled on his helmet. Tina was right—he was smart. When had his body become more important than what was on his mind? The roar of his bike shook him free. Now was not the time for introspection. He needed his game face and at least three shots of espresso if he was going to deal with Lauren.
Pulling onto Main toward Grind It, the only coffee shop open after six, he tried to forget the look on Trick’s face. Tried to forget how it screamed disappointment.
Sistine Branch hoped the lipstick she found toward the back of her bathroom drawer that morning hadn’t smeared onto her front teeth. Sweet Lord, convincing four women that Knitterly was the best place for Stitches was exhausting. The annual knitting and crochet expo was based out of Los Angeles, but they held the event in a new city every year.
Sistine had gone once when it was in San Diego and it was incredibly well run. Now she knew why. These women were practically running a white glove over every inch of her place. And the smiling—someone save her from the smiling. But, if she landed this, sore cheeks would be more than worth it. Stitches meant national exposure and, more importantly, come July, over a thousand knitters would descend on Petaluma and her shop. This was big and since Sistine had barely scraped together her loan payment this month, she needed big.
“So, like I said,” Deidra, the woman who smelled like gardenias and seemed to be the one in charge, poured more tea while the other three women continued to “meander.” Great word, Sistine decided and remembered now was not the time for collecting words.
“The committee doesn’t normally choose a shop your size, but this year, we are all about organic fibers and returning to the roots of our craft, you know?”
More smiling and nodding as Deidra stirred in some sugar.“
Historic downtown Petaluma seems like the perfect fit,” Sistine said, trying not to sound schmaltzy.
Deidra tapped the spoon against her teacup and pointed it at Sistine. “Exactly what we were thinking. We want to highlight some of the smaller shops like yours, and this building is so lovely.”
They both took in Knitterly’s dark wood floors and crown molding, a huge chunk of which Sistine had hot glued to the wall moments before they arrived, and Sistine felt like she was watching the same scene replayed on a loop. How many times did they need to look around, review her policies, ask her about her insurance?
As many times as it takes. Can you pass up ten thousand dollars, Ms. Cup-a-Noodles-for-Most-Meals?
Ten thousand dollars. That was the holding deposit, and she would make so much more on top of that in shop sales. This one expo alone could save her shop, get her in the black and over the two-year hump that swallowed most small businesses.
“So if, and I’m feeling it’s more of a when, but if we choose to hold the expo here, are you certain you can handle the capacity? Two years ago, we partnered with this great place in downtown Boulder. The shop was adorable, but the event was a mess. I’m sure you understand, I can’t let that happen again.”
“I completely understand.” Sistine offered Deidra a cookie from the box she’d picked up at Sift that morning. Deidra smiled and indulged. Cookies were universal. “The fact that I own the building gives me flexibility I doubt other venues will have. The back patio expansion will be finished next month, and we’re adding additional meeting spots out front.”
“I love that idea. It will be gorgeous in July and that water, tea, lemonade station in front was a brilliant idea.” She popped the last bit of cookie in her mouth and set her teacup on the work table.
“And, don’t forget my connections with the town. One of my best friends runs the bakery. Another manages Foghorn Brewery.”
“We had lunch there. I love that place.”
“Right? It’s fantastic. We could host a dinner or get-together in that space too.”
“Could you get us a discount?”
“I could work something out.”
Deidra clapped her hands together and Sistine wanted to join her. This was going better than she imagined, so she finished strong.
“And I know people in fire and medical. All of historic downtown will be ready for your expo.”
“Fantastic. Can we get a look at those construction drawings of the back patio one more time?”
“Absolutely.” Sistine opened her laptop and wiped her hand on her skirt, hoping to hide her nerves. She tapped the touch pad, but instead of her screen filling with the artist renderings of a remodel she was barely able to afford, there was a pop and the screen went black.
“Uh-oh. Looks like it’s time for you to plug in. We’ve exhausted your poor laptop.” Deidra giggled and reached for another cookie.
Sistine’s laptop was plugged in. It wasn’t her battery. Glancing toward the front of the store, she noticed the lights she hung around the front window were out.
“Hun, what’s your Wi-Fi password again? It seems to have dropped me.” The woman with the pink bow on her sweater approached them. Carrie? Candy? Damn it, Sistine couldn’t remember.
Hoping her voice wasn’t shaking, she gave out the password. It wasn’t going to work, but it would buy some time. Looking to the branches that hung from the ceiling of her shop, Sistine now knew what was wrong. The sun had not started to set, so the four women who currently held her financial fate in their manicured hands had not figured it out yet, but something had blown the electricity in her entire shop.
Sistine leaned a hip on the counter and continued staring at the dark screen of her laptop hoping for an idea, something to explain why even though her beloved 1929 building had its creaks and quirks, it could handle the expo. She’d grown up surrounded by small business. She watched her parents struggle and knew more than anyone that perception was everything. Even though she knew she could handle this expo and that it would be a huge success, if these women didn’t believe that was possible, it was over.
“Deidra, I think the electricity is off.”
All four women looked to Sistine. “Huh, I don’t know what happened. Maybe the guys doing the remodel hit something,” she lied.
“Well, that’s not good.” The women glanced at one another.
“All of this will be finished well before the expo. That’s good, right?”
Sistine smiled. Again. She guessed the lipstick was gone at this point.
After a moment of awkward where Sistine wasn’t sure what else she could add, the committee grabbed their purses and moved toward the door. She wanted to grab Deidra by the front of her expensive blouse and say, “I can do this. I swear if you give me this chance, you will not be disappointed.” But she’d majored in marketing with an emphasis on branding, and nowhere in her best practices did it say go batshit desperate if you want people to do business with you. So, hiding her desperation behind her last thread of pride, she walked them out and pretended not to notice Deidra avoided eye contact as she said, “We’ll be in touch.”
Cross-legged in one of the overstuffed chairs in her front room, Sistine tried to focus on the beauty of the sky as day began giving way to night. Cobalt, she thought. It was definitely a cobalt sky, but the remaining sunlight added flecks of bluebell.
Bluebell or lunar. Which one was lighter again? She glanced at what she’d termed her Wall of Yarn in her shop and confirmed the sky was flecked with bluebell. She left messages with both the contractor handling her back patio and an electrician Aspen recommended. Maybe it was nothing, a blown fuse. She hugged her legs tighter into her chest. Who was she kidding? She was raised in an old home in Bodega Bay. She knew all about fuses. This wasn’t a fuse. She didn’t know how to explain it, but she’d spent practically every moment over the past two years in this old building. Something was wrong.
Darkness settled on her shop and she tried not to take it as an omen. Instead, she made her way to her apartment in the back of the shop and grabbed her wallet and her laptop. The coffee shop near the river was open until ten on Thursdays. She needed to pull up her spreadsheets, look at her numbers. Somehow, she would come up with a plan if the expo fell through, if the entire building needed to be rewired.
“Have a plan B, C, and D,” her dad told her from the time she was little.
Sistine had forty dollars cash in her wallet. There was no sense sweating over something unknown, a bill she didn’t yet have. She’d get some tea and one of those microwaved sandwiches. Maybe she’d splurge for a tea latte.
Maybe she’d call Melissa back and—No. She needed to stay in the present. She wasn’t that desperate. Not yet.