Sage Jeffries never backed down from a challenge. “There’s nothing you can’t do if you set your mind to it” was practical- ly a family motto growing up. She and her three sisters spent their childhood outsmarting, outrunning, and out-achieving one another. Hollis graduated high school in three and a half years; Sage did it in three. Annabelle rode in her first competitive horse show when she was seven, so their youngest sister Meg made sure to win her first blue ribbon by the same age. To say the Jeffries girls were competitive was an understatement. So, it took the family by surprise when Sage bowed out of corporate life to become a bartender in Los Angeles. “Not simply a bartender, a mixologist,” she had said, but her sisters mocked what they called her foolishness while her parents offered up some extra cash. She’d been in LA almost three years now, and mixing drinks wasn’t all that different from building robots. She’d always loved pieces and parts—figuring out what worked together and fixing things that were broken. Shortly before turning thirty, she’d announced during a family dinner her desire to experience more than what she’d learned in a classroom or the boardroom. She wanted stories and adventure. Since renting her little 1960s-style, one-bedroom bungalow, Sage had become an experience junkie. She went to festivals, had jumped out of a plane, traveled, hiked, and competed in cocktail competitions. She loved her job and after reading a book on giving back, she’d become involved in her local community center. In a few months, she would be teaching bridge, which would have made her grandmother so proud. Sage was up for anything that brought her closer to life—real life.
Of course, even with her recent “renaissance” as her father liked to call it, there was still one area of “experience” that had eluded her. In school, Sage was shy, and now that she’d grown up a bit, she was sort of clumsy or awkward, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was the opposite sex was a weakness, an area in which she’d never managed to excel. That was exactly why her sister Hollis had downloaded the book onto Sage’s Kindle in the first place and stuck a note on the screen while she was packing. After settling into her seat on the plane, she read the note.
Good seeing you. You’ve been in LA long enough now. Stop being so damn nice. It’s time. You’re a bartender, little sis. Happy Reading! XO Hol.
She’d finished with one of those stupid winky faces. Damn her and her winky face, Sage thought, peeling the note off and stuffing it into the seat pocket in front of her. The moment she touched the little book icon, she was happy she had a Kindle. Not that she was embar- rassed to be reading a book titled Nice to Naughty in Ten Easy Steps, but it wasn’t something she wanted to advertise either. The plane began to taxi and Sage held the blue quartz stone hanging from her necklace as if it could somehow aid in delivering her safely back to Los Ange- les. She knew better; she knew how planes were made but still brought something with her every time she flew—a piece of good energy, in case there was more to life than moving parts.
Sage read the “How To Use This Book” section and began ques- tioning her sister’s suggestion the minute the author compared women to fruit salad. As the plane lifted off, she took hold of the armrest and prepared for that moment in flight when everything drops a little from the turbulence. Once she made it past that point, Sage had learned through countless trips out of San Francisco, she could relax.
Settling back into the virtually nonexistent cushion of 14C, she noticed the man sitting by the window. Seat 14B, between them, was empty, so Sage had a little room to observe. Casually glancing up from his dark leather loafers, Cole Haan if she had to guess, she saw he was reading Maxim magazine. Once he flipped the page, the cover folded out of sight, but not before she caught a glimpse of a gorgeous woman in next to nothing, her hands over her impressive breasts. Sage looked around the cabin as if some alarm was about to go off and found herself shocked that he was reading what should be a guilty pleasure right out in the open. And what was he so intent on reading? Was there anything to actually read in Maxim? She’d seen the magazine on the stand but never opened it, so she supposed she shouldn’t judge, but she did anyway. Crossing her legs to the other side and attempting to focus back on her own book, Sage learned that apparently naughty women were the grapes of the fruit salad.
She shook her head as her eyes drifted again, this time to the man’s hands and quickly to his face. No wedding ring, nice suit, and he was good-looking. At least from what her side-glance could gather. She noticed the soft leather briefcase at his feet and deduced that he was traveling for business. Did businessmen read smutty magazines on the plane? Out in the open?
As if she’d said it out loud, he looked up, brushed past her eyes, and asked the flight attendant for a ginger ale. His voice was deep, nice. Sage turned, realizing she’d been caught staring at a complete stranger, and told the short woman with blond hair and a huge turquoise ring on her middle finger that she was fine with her bottle of water. Smiling, the attendant moved away for a second and returned with a fizzing plastic cup, square napkin, and a bag of peanuts. She reached past Sage to hand them to the man and, with effort, pushed the cart on to the next row. Wondering for a minute how heavy those carts actually were, Sage again returned to her book and vowed to try to act normal.
“Business or pleasure?” the man next to her asked, folding his magazine and putting it between the seat cushions.
Sage reacted with a bit of a jump, as if she’d suddenly noticed another human being was sitting next to her. So much for normal. His eyes were brown and he had a cute little birthmark right below his ear, on his neck. Now that he’d spoken to her, she turned and noticed he was definitely good-looking—good-looking and smiling. Big, super-white teeth.
Answer him, you creeper, her mind yelled.
“Yes, sorry. I’m. . . pleasure. I was home for Christmas.” She smiled back. “You?”
He let out a breath and opened his peanuts. “Business, unfor- tunately.”
“Hopefully you had a little time for the holiday? Or maybe you don’t celebrate Christmas. Oh wow, I’m sorry. You’re Jewish.”
Here we go, crazy lady.
The cute guy laughed. “No, I’m not Jewish. I’m the only one of three associates who is still single, and our Japanese client couldn’t care less if it was Christmas, so they sent me.”
Giving him a look she hoped conveyed commiseration and made up for her odd outburst, she returned to the safety of her book.
“I’d much rather be spending time in San Francisco with a beautiful woman,” he said as easily as he took a sip of his ginger ale.
Sage felt her heart jump, like it did any time she wasn’t behind her bar and had to make conversation with a charismatic man.
Don’t assume he’s referring to you, she told herself as she was sus- pended in uncomfortable silence.
“I’m sure you get that all the time, huh?”
Okay, so he is talking about you. Be gracious.
“Oh, not exactly. Thank you.”
Finishing his handful of peanuts and twisting the bag into a tiny bowtie, he moved on, asking her what she did for a living and commenting that he liked her necklace. Sage closed the black cover of her Kindle, took a sip of water, and talked with Chris, who introduced himself with a great handshake. He explained he was a lawyer traveling home from San Francisco after several long days of depositions.
“Do you live in LA?” he asked with the confidence Sage recog- nized in men she served drinks to at The Yard. Success brought with it an ease Sage usually found interesting when she had three feet of mahogany in front of her. Without it, packed into an airplane, she found it unnerving.
“Yes,” she managed, bracing herself for the next inevitable question.
“Me too. Let me get your number and maybe we can get a cof- fee or I can take you to dinner.”
Sage looked down at the cover of her Kindle, her head now swirling with the fruit salad analogy. She had no idea how to be a grape in the female fruit salad yet, but she’d observed enough grapes to know it often involved exchanging numbers. So, even though she barely knew this man, even though she wasn’t sure she was attracted to him, and even though he had a subscription to Maxim—she’d seen the mailing label—she let out a shallow breath and gave him her number. As Chris typed her name into his phone, she noticed his hands again. They were tan and well-groomed. Peeking out from his starched cuff was a woven bracelet. As they were departing, he explained he’d brought it back when he hiked Machu Picchu last year.
They exchanged pleasant smiles, and he looked back again as he wheeled his bag out to the curb after they said good-bye. Sage realized her hand was sweating as she clutched her own bag, but she also felt flushed with something else—pride. She’d actually sat on a plane with a handsome guy, been social, flirted a little, and with the exception of a brief blip into Judaism, she hadn’t once made an ass of herself. It wasn’t quite naughty, she thought as she scanned the curb for a shuttle that would take her to long-term parking, but Hollis had a point. She had been in LA for a while now and other than her infatuation with her best friend’s older brother, which was going nowhere, Sage hadn’t made much of an effort in the male department. A new year was right around the corner and she had tried so many things since moving to LA, so perhaps it was time to give “naughty” the old Jeffries try. She was only on chapter one of the book and would probably never make it to a grape, but she’d settle for a banana, maybe even a strawberry.
Garrett Rye was up before the sun and happy the holidays were over. He loved the tradition of it all, but there wasn’t much down- time on the farm, and juggling schedules throughout November and December was always a hassle. With only four more days until he could flip the office calendar to the new year, he welcomed a return to routine. After breakfast and feeding Jack, Garrett hopped into his truck, Jack riding shotgun as usual. It was Monday morning, and he had a meeting in the office with a new company that wanted to provide recycled bands for the farm’s lettuce and kale. Their bands contained “no wire” which meant “less of a footprint,” or so they’d said on the phone last week. When Garrett had asked if they actually worked, he was told they held together better than the ones he was currently using. He would believe it when he saw it. He’d spent his entire life farming, striking a balance between need and rejuvenation. Lately, it felt like a dear friend had suddenly become a celebrity. The environment was big business now. Garrett still found it difficult to catch up with the latest do and don’t list. Only last week, his niece informed him that recycling his paper bags from the market wasn’t enough. He needed to buy cloth bags. Garrett had bought the damn things but never remembered to take them out of his truck when he went shopping. Paige had told him he was a “work in progress.” Garrett laughed, thinking about his niece, or as he liked to call her, “your highness.”
The thought of an hour-long meeting talking about bands made his head hurt. Someone had to take care of this shit, but he often wished it didn’t have to be him. “Eh, quit your whining and focus on all the things going right,” he could hear his father’s voice in his head as he pulled over to check the newly installed drip system on the south field. Jack jumped across his lap as soon as the truck door opened and was off between the rows of newly planted radishes and carrots.
The sun was starting to make its way up the horizon. Garrett crouched down and grabbed some soil, rubbing it between his fingers. It was moist, perfect actually. He looked toward the horizon and found that most things were going right. Despite the fact that he had to wear a starched button-down shirt today instead of his preferred long-sleeve T-shirt, despite his list of “have tos” waiting for him on his calendar today, most of which had nothing to do with this sunrise or this soil, Garrett was right where he wanted to be. The good outweighed the bad when he put his hands to earth or when he thought about his family or looked out and saw Jack running around, ears cocked and stub of a tail wagging. This was his center, and even though he was now respon- sible for so many other things, it was all part of the effort to keep things as they were.
He grabbed another handful of soil and brought it to his nose before returning it to the neatly laid-out row. Whistling for Jack, he glanced over at the south barn as the guys were opening the doors, starting up the motors. He missed it, that work, he missed it every day, but his father needed him where he was, and Garrett was never one to complain.
He pulled his truck into its usual spot in front of the old as- sembly building, which was now the administrative offices of Ryeland Farms, and waved to George, who was unlocking the door, a thermos of coffee dangling from one finger.
“Did you bring any more of those tamales for lunch?” Garrett asked, grabbing a folder off his dash and closing the door behind Jack.
George shook his head and flicked on the lights, holding the glass door open. “Nah, they were gone yesterday morning. Next year, man.” He patted Garrett on the back and followed him into his office.
“I saw the guys getting started out there. Checked the latest section of the drip system. Everything looks good. Anything I’m not seeing?” Garrett asked as Jack curled up on his bed under the window.
“No, things are pretty much what you saw. They lay the rest of the drip lines today and the guys will be finished planting right behind them. That part went off without a hitch.” He leaned forward and knocked on the wood of Garrett’s desk.
George shared his coffee with Garrett, as he did most morn- ings, while they talked about the day ahead and things that might come up. When Garrett had worked the land himself, he’d used his instincts—smells, texture, or a feeling—but since taking over, things had changed. The risk had grown from simply losing a crop to losing everything, so he had learned to use schedules and calendars; his plans had backup plans, but he still had instinct. He needed it for the unexpected, and there was always something unexpected.
He and George were wrapping things up before Garrett’s meet- ing when George pulled out his phone. They flipped through pictures of their Christmas Eve dinner and as they laughed, Garrett remembered why he spent Christmas Eve with George and his family.
As lead farm manager, George and the rest of the Gomez fami- ly hosted a dinner for anyone who wanted the world’s best tamales or, more importantly, couldn’t get home for the holiday. George and his wife Angela knew how to have a good time, and Garrett went every year. Christmas Eve potluck was a tradition that dated several generations back in the Rye family. Herbert, Garrett’s father, usually attended, but once his granddaughter was born, Herb had “no intention of missing a holiday with my princess,” so he abdicated the responsibility to his oldest son. Garrett didn’t mind. In fact, he looked forward to it every year. Logan, his brother the chef, gave him pickled carrots and jalapenos from his garden to bring, while Kenna, his sister, bought and wrapped all the presents. Garrett was the chosen ambassador, but it was a family effort.
The people who ran Ryeland Farms, the folks who woke up early and put in the work, were important. They worked as hard as Garrett did, sometimes harder, and it was part of his job to make sure they always knew they were valued. When he’d taken over most of the operational responsibilities, his father had told him, “People need to feel they are a part of something more than a paycheck.”
George and Angela lived with their teenage daughter on the farm. Their house used to be Garrett’s grandparents’, before the main house, where his father lived now, was built. Ryeland Farms was barely shy of fifty-five acres complete with three barns, the newly converted offices, a four-bay garage, an orchard, beehives, and a large pond with ducks. The main house was where they were all raised and where Garrett had lived until he was about twenty- five. That was when he moved out to the house he’d designed and helped build toward the edge of the property, near the apple trees. His house was small, but it was uniquely suited to him, and it felt like home. Growing up, Logan and Kenna had left for lives of their own, still connected, but away from the farm. Garrett had always known he would work with his dad and eventually take over. He loved what he did, but there was a sense of blending into the background that he’d only recently started to notice. He’d become a fixture, like Gracie the goat. He coexisted with the image of their childhood, Ryeland Farms, as a whole. He didn’t cook like his brother or have a child like his sister. Both of them ran something separate from their shared past, and Garrett had stayed behind.
As they thumbed through the last of the pictures, Garrett wondered if his life would always be this way. Would he spend every Christmas Eve with George or his family and their spouses and children? If that’s how it was all meant to play out, he was happy with that. It was all he needed. Garrett would always take “same old, same old” over disruption and uncertainty. The last time he’d been uncertain, he was nine. He’d gone to school one morning and returned to a very different life. Since that day, after the initial “what now?” moment, Garrett had created a solid foundation for his family, steeped in hard work, chores, and keeping things steady. They counted on it, or at least they did growing up.
Walking George to his office and then greeting the sales guys waiting for him by the front door, Garrett knew his family wasn’t going anywhere. Both his brother and sister were getting married, but that didn’t mean anything needed to change. He and his father ran the farm, and that would always be. By the time he closed the conference room door, he’d answered his own wonderings—yes, his life would always be exactly as it was.