I pulled my car around to the back of the barn and sat with my head in my hands. I’d just returned from my accountant and the news was bad. How would I tell Aunt Franny that her help wasn’t enough? I thought things were finally going my way. I can’t keep leaning so hard on my friends.
Some money from the bar paid for a hired hand at the orchard. Even with Maya’s help, I didn’t know if we’d get the harvest off in time, and even if we did, it wouldn’t be enough to keep the orchard alive. Three generations of Smiths have farmed here. God, don’t let me be the one to fail.
I could see Maya chatting with Kramer down in Orchard One. When Maya returned home for our 10-year high school reunion, she was eager to help me, but her experience in digital media was a far cry from tending apple trees. Kramer was patient with her, and she jumped at doing anything he said. I gave them a quick wave. I needed to put things away around the barn, a task that always got dropped off the priority list. Someone had to do it.
This meeting with the accountant had me in a foul mood. I’d keep to myself and work off my aggravation. Ornery wasn’t a good look on me, nor was it natural. So, when I came around the corner to find a stranger standing at the barn doors, my temper snapped.
“What are you doing back here?” He turned around at my voice. “This area is for staff only.”
Realizing I'd spoken harshly, I switched gears. “My apologies. Are you here for a guided tour? We ask our customers to wait at the front gate,” I said, pointing to the big sign that said Tours Start Here. I racked my brain, wondering if I’d forgotten about a tour. They were pretty few and far between these days.
“A tour? If I could speak to someone more…in charge,” he replied.
I looked him up and down. He wore a tailored jacket and expensive jeans, and his leather belt matched his shoes. Not the attire of a typical tourist in Cherryville.
He continued, “Phoebe told me the Winegrowers Association would be meeting at Smith’s Apple Orchard. I am in the right place, am I not?” He looked around, confused. “I can’t seem to find the tasting hall, just this old barn. Is this the service area?”
Even his charming European accent didn’t soften his insult.
“Phoebe sent you?” My mind searched for a missed email. “For the Winegrowers Meeting?” Sometimes we changed the meeting location. I had been on the Board for almost a year and still felt out of the loop. The Board had been my father’s passion, he had founded the association with several local orchard patriarchs. I hadn’t hosted a meeting yet, for precisely the reason that this annoying man was suggesting. My venue space was no longer up to snuff.
“There isn’t a meeting here?” the stranger asked.
We stared at each other.
“Let me call Phoebe and see where the mix-up happened. Just wait here.” I stepped away to be out of earshot and pulled out my phone. I peeked around the bales of hay at the abrupt stranger. He was taller than I was, though that didn’t take much. His sandy blond hair was short and messy. Probably a European thing. I pressed Phoebe’s number and swore under my breath when it went to voicemail. “Phoebe, call me. Did you tell the Winegrowers that we would meet here? I’m sending a text also.” I hung up and texted the same message.
Phoebe and I had been friends since school. As a member of our Town Council, she was on the Winegrowers Board, chaired the Heritage Committee and marshaled all the summer festivals. She also owned the commercial building on Main Street that housed Aunt Franny’s tapas bar, our favorite gathering spot.
Remembering my manners, I approached the man again. “I’m sorry. Phoebe’s phone went to voicemail. There must be a mistake. My name is Katie—” I extended my hand.
“Look, miss,” he interrupted, “if I can speak with the owner…I am Lucan Dubois. I have recently arrived in Cherryville, and I want to introduce myself to the Winegrowers Association. I have several business ideas…” He paused. “But…” He gestured to the barn with a look of distaste.
My defenses went up. “I’m sure there is a simple explanation about the mix-up.” Not to mention that it could have been his mistake. But how would he have known to come here? “Let me call someone else.” I waved my phone to indicate I was on it as I walked away.
My anger rose. How dare he come into my orchard and insult my barn. You’re a good barn, even if you are showing your age. His arrogant manner made me wonder if I was the one mistaken. He seemed so sure of himself.
I called Jin. A side conversation with Phoebe was coming back to me. Something about Jin’s friend from overseas? This must be him.
Jin’s phone went to voicemail and I got a text saying he would call me back in a few minutes. I left a message for him to call me right away. What happened to the good ol’ days, when people simply answered their phones?
Meanwhile, Phoebe’s text popped onto my screen.
Just as I was trying to decode Phoebe’s text, an email popped up. It was from Phoebe to the Winegrowers Board list. **Just a reminder of our meeting at Smith’s Apple Orchard. Today at 4:00pm.** As I scanned the agenda, trying to figure out how the meeting was at my place without me knowing, Maya shouted from the orchard.
“Katie! Did you forget about the meeting?” Maya ran toward me, waving her phone in the air. “Phoebe’s frantically texting me. Crap, they’re coming in an hour. I suggested we could set up outside. The weather is perfect. Phoebe was fine with that. Don’t worry, Kramer and I have this.”
Kramer, always calm, sauntered along while Maya raced into the barn. “Where are all the chairs? Argh, did someone move things in here?”
Maya’s voice faded as she rummaged around in the back of the barn. Lucan stood with his arms crossed, a look of disapproval on his face.
My cell phone rang. “Hello, Jin.”
“Oh man, Katie. I told Lucan the wrong time. I’m on my way. I’m bringing the food.”
“Maya and Kramer are setting up now. We’ll figure it out. See you soon.” I regained my composure and turned to Lucan. He held up his phone, showing that Jin had texted him.
“Well, the mystery is explained. I’m sorry for the confusion.” I regained command of my business-owner persona. “Maya and Kramer will get the tables and chairs out. Jin is on his way with the catering.” I forced some client charm. “In the meanwhile, would you like an orchard tour?”
Lucan paused. He looked directly at me for an uncomfortable moment. I did a mental check. Was my hair okay? Something in my teeth? I ran my tongue over them, checking for trapped morsels. I remembered my soiled work clothes.
He replied, “I would rather take that tour with the owner, but thank you. You can go back to work.”
“But, I am the—”
Lucan waved me off, continuing, “It is not necessary. I am here early. You need to prepare. I will wait for Jin by my car. I do not want to bother you any further.” And with that, he turned and walked away, dismissing me like a subordinate.
The nerve! I was in full flame with this abrupt rudeness. But he was right about one thing…I needed to get ready for this meeting. I went into the barn to check on Maya. Vehicles were arriving down the lane. Soon, I heard two male voices out in the parking lot. Jin must be here. Another car pulled in, and I heard Phoebe’s voice call out.
“We’re in the barn,” I yelled from the doorway.
Maya and Kramer had done an excellent job setting out tables and chairs in record time. Jin carried baskets of food, tapas he’d prepared at the bar. He shot me an apologetic look as he unpacked white linen tablecloths and spread them out over the tables. “Your place is lovely and the weather is perfect.” He gave me a look of reassurance.
I grabbed the barn doors, closing them so no one could see the disarray inside. Maya pulled me inside the barn before I could close them completely.
“How could you forget about the meeting, Katie?” she asked. ‘That’s not like you. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been getting a lot of bad news these days.”
“Bad news?” Maya paused and looked at me as if surveying the bags under my eyes. “I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on how stressed you are.” Maya stepped closer to give me a hug.
I put my head on Maya’s shoulder. “I can’t talk about it now or I’ll start crying. Let’s get through this meeting and then I’ll fill you in.” Just then, I noticed Lucan headed toward the barn. “Just keep that snobbish friend of Jin’s away from me. I don’t have the strength to deal with him today.”
“Clearly, that’s something else you need to fill me in on, but I’ve got you.” Maya didn’t miss a beat. She pivoted, stepped out through the barn doors, and met Lucan mid-step. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” Extending her hand, Maya blocked his path and allowed me to escape, closing the doors behind me.
The Board members began to arrive in full force. I let Phoebe handle the greetings while I quickly slipped into the house to freshen up. Maybe Jin’s outstanding spread of food would distract the members from noticing the slowly dilapidating buildings around them.
I dashed into the old farmhouse, kicking off my boots at the door. I hurried into the bathroom to splash cool water on my face. I took a moment to fix my braid, pulling it back and securing it with a nicer band. Shoot! I stared at my old jeans and t-shirt. No wonder that pompous Lucan thought I was hired help. I rummaged through my clothes looking for the perfect ensemble, or, at least something that suggested I owned the place.
Nothing seemed quite right. Aunt Franny had been helping me update my wardrobe, but some of her choices required bravery on my part. Just as I was about to give up, my gaze fell upon a simple turquoise sundress I’d forgotten I had. I pulled it out and slipped it on, then paired it with a jean jacket. I admired my reflection in the mirror. Maybe Franny is rubbing off on me after all.
I heard more vehicles pull into the lane as I quickly stepped into a pair of ankle boots Franny had selected for me. I never understood the ankle boot. Not much help they’d be in the orchard after a good rainfall. But, they looked cute with the dress. I darted back outside where Phoebe and Maya had things well under control.
I walked up to Jin. “Jin, you’ve outdone yourself. Thank you for this incredible spread of food.”
“It’s the least I can do, Katie,” he replied. “After everything you’ve done to support me at the restaurant.” He gave me a quick hug. “Oh, have you two been formally introduced?”
I turned around to see who he was referring to and found Lucan walking toward us. His gaze traveled the full length of my dress, then rested on my eyes. A smug smile crossed his face.
Jin continued, “Sorry about the mix-up in times. Katie, meet my old partner in crime and mischievous delights, Lucan. Lucan, meet Katie Smith.”
“I— uh…excuse me?” Lucan stammered, his smug smile turning to a sheepish grin. “Katie Smith?”
“Yes,” I beamed back at him, now my turn to be smug. “Smith, as in Smith’s Orchard.” I continued, “Welcome to Cherryville. I can’t imagine you’ll be here long. I do hope you’ll enjoy your stay. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have Board business to attend to.” And with that, I stepped past him.
WHIPPED CREAM IS THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING
Later that week, I gathered my files from my meeting with the accountant, preparing for my meeting at the bank. I wanted to know my options on the loan Dad had taken out to buoy the business a year ago, before his heart attack. I took one last sip of chamomile tea and headed out the door. On the way, I gathered my courage. I’ll be calm. I won’t show my panic. Bankers are like animals sensing your fear… okay, maybe not Cherryville’s bankers. I’ve known them since I was a kid. I’ll not reveal my fears. I’ll simply ask questions.
Just asking questions. Where do I find the money to fix the barn? How do I get the harvest off in time? Who will be available for markets and store visits? Why me? I took a few deep breaths. Dad said to never ask why. He called it why-ning. The better questions start with how, who, where and when. Why isn’t productive if you need to get something done.
As I reached for the car door, my phone rang. I opened the door and set the files and my purse on the car seat, and pulled out my phone. Ugh, Phoebe, why don’t you just text like everyone else? Whoops. I realized I’d just done more why-ning. She was notorious for roping me into things over the phone. I answered the call anyway.
“Of course, Phoebe, I’ll be there for the town meeting tonight.” I knew I should get off the phone quickly, otherwise… Too late. “Okay, I’ll pick up the catering from Jin and get the coffee started. I really need to let you go now.” I hung up first, something I never did, jumped into my car and headed into town.
As I drove down the apple-tree-lined driveway, I surveyed the loaded branches. This could be our year, Dad. The one we’d been waiting for. I just need to get the crop off and sold. This year’s cherry harvest went well. If I didn’t have this damn loan hanging over my head, the orchard could survive. Maybe.
I really needed to find another hired hand. I worried that Kramer was burning out. Another hand would free me up for markets and maybe I could even get the old cider still up and running again. But a new orchard hand would cost more in wages, and I realized abruptly, as I pulled up in front of the bank, that was not going to be an option this year. Between me and Kramer, we’d just need to cope. My phone buzzed. I plucked it from my purse.
Saw you drive by
Meet me for coffee at Joe’s in 20?
Her timing seemed about right. If the meeting at the bank went well, I’d have something to celebrate. If not, I could drown my sorrows in a cup of Joe’s hot apple cider.
See you in 20
I was never going to get answers if I kept taking phone calls and texts. I repeated my mantra again. Focus, Katie. Just ask questions. Don’t assume the worst. Just ask. Dad had every confidence. I could do this.
I got out of the car and, mustering all the hope I could, opened the door to the bank. The bank manager’s office door was open, and as I walked towards Lenny, I felt my heart skip in my chest. Lenny and I were friends. I went to school with her husband. She was older than me, but our families had known each other for generations. Today, Lenny had her ‘banker face’ on. It was a joke among the families how Lenny had a certain expression when delivering bad news, a formidable combination of compassion and ‘don’t mess with me.’ I couldn’t believe I was seeing ‘the face.’ Not to me, not now. This was beyond the worst-case scenario. This was a disaster.
“I’ll take a hot apple cider, Joe,” I said, plopping myself down into a chair near Maya. “With extra whip.”
“Sure thing, Katie,” Joe said from behind the counter.
Maya raised an eyebrow at me. “Extra whip? It doesn’t even come with whip.” The stylish sunglasses that held back Maya’s thick hair reflected the disappointment on my face.
Maya picked up on my mood. “Are you going to tell me what’s been going on with you?”
Joe brought over our drinks. “Thanks, Joe,” I said, managing a smile.
Maya took a sip of her coffee, burning her top lip. “Shit. Every time.” She stared me down in the way she’d done since grade school. “Now spill it,” she said. “And spare no detail.”
Just then, Franny blew into the coffee shop, her auburn curls tied back with an orange scarf. “Joe, my good fellow, what’s the word today?”
“Hey there, Franny,” Joe replied. “The word is vivacious.”
He and Franny had this daily word thing going where Joe would find and use a new word each day.
“Vivacious,” Franny repeated while Joe heated the milk for her latté. “I like it!”
“It’s just like you, Franny,” Joe replied, pouring the hot milk into the mug and handing it to her.
“Thanks, Joe. I’ll take it where I can get it.” She handed him a five-dollar bill and walked over to Maya and me. “Good morning, Cherryville chiquitas.”