1. that kind of day
Outside the cozy interior of Tullamore Café, the rain comes down in heavy, rippling sheets. Water coats the windows like vaseline, morphing street traffic into pulsing ribbons of light. It’s only five o’clock in the afternoon but so dark it might as well be midnight. If there’s a world beyond the windows, I can’t make sense of it.
Beneath the mellow jazz filtering through speakers, there’s a low rumble of thunder that makes me shiver in delight.
“Earth to Rose.”
I’m stuck to the storm like an insect to flypaper, lured by the violence of nature, by my base craving for inspiration. Fill me up then let me fall, water through your hands. Lyrics float through my mind, a melody teasing up from the depths. Take me back to the deep, I have no skin, no defense.
“She’ll be right with you.”
The voice is hollow, a distant foghorn.
Much closer this time, my name spoken with a mixture of humor and aggravation.
The door to the music in my mind slams shut. The present roars into the vacuum, bringing all the varied sounds of life: murmured words, clanking of knives and forks, pings of ceramic mugs on saucers, and the sweet rustling of newspapers and books.
Owen, my cousin and co-owner with me of Tullamore, shakes his head as I offer a rueful smile.
“Sorry,” I say with a shrug.
“Daydreamer,” he chides, then nods to the heavy binder braced on his forearms. “I’ll watch the front if you want to do inventory.”
“Hell no,” I say, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “It’s your turn.”
I scoot past Owen, making my way across the café and around the ordering counter. On the other side of the registers stands a solitary man, currently gazing down at our trifold menu. When I reach him, he glances up with a distracted smile. I only see his face for a second before he refocuses on the menu—but a second is enough.
Holy shit. A wave of tingling shock electrifies my scalp and zings down my spine.
Julian Ashburn. In the flesh.
Despite the black beanie pulled low over his ears and forehead, despite a week’s worth of stubble on his jaw and the rain jacket obscuring his physique, I instantly recognize the frontman of Breaking Giants.
If I were still a teenager, his band’s poster would be on my wall. Being twenty-seven and relatively mature, however, my obsession is limited to purchasing every album and single—digital, CD, and vinyl—that the band releases.
I knew they lived in Seattle but never imagined I’d see any of them in person. Least of all Julian. He’s notoriously reclusive, rarely grants interviews, and generally avoids press like the plague. He didn’t even show up at the Grammys last year despite Breaking Giants being nominated for Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Not shockingly, they’d won both. The three other members of the band had accepted the awards without their frontman.
By the furtive glances I’m receiving from warm brown eyes, he really doesn’t want me to expose him. And as much as I might want to, I won’t. Not only would it be rude to ignore the prompt, it would also be bad for business. Seattle is ripe with big-name athletes, actors, and musicians. If we alerted the press every time a celebrity walked in we’d lose our integrity.
Tullamore is a retreat for those who crave the funky, noisy vibe of a non-corporate establishment. Our customers come to blend in and relax. They like that we’re family owned and operated, tucked on a narrow side street in the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont. They like our organic menu and copious vegan options, and the way we showcase local artists on exposed brick walls instead of mass-produced prints and marketing slogans.
On any given day I’m not wowed by celebrity, having grown up with a music producer father and singer-songwriter mother. Elton John was at my tenth birthday party. But this man…
This man is a different story.
My armpits prickle with fangirl sweat as I imagine the sound of his voice. I want—no, need—to hear his voice.
I clear my throat. “The BLT is a huge hit. If you like bacon. Do you? Or are you a vegetarian? We make a mean SLTA.” I clamp my lips shut to halt the nervous outpour.
“SLTA?” he echoes, a little frown appearing between sloping black brows.
Yep. His voice in person surpasses my wildest dreams. Smoke with a touch of honey. There’s a light ringing in my ears—I’m pretty sure several million of my braincells just spontaneously combusted.
“Sprouts—” My throat constricts, squeezing me silent, as Julian finally gives me the attention of his stare.
Brown, I immediately decide, is a tawdry adjective to describe the color of his eyes. They’re aged whiskey and tobacco. Sunset in the desert. Gold on brown. Leonine.
Words clog my circuits. Predatory eyes track me, unbutton my thoughts and expose my underbelly. I instinctively reach for my pocket journal, then see it sitting on the counter ten feet away. Tortured, I huff out a breath, clenching and unclenching my fingers.
“Are you all right?”
Heat rushes to my cheeks. “Yes, absolutely. Sorry. Um, what was I saying?”
Those phenomenal eyes fly over my face, and I finally understand what romance novels refer to as a piercing gaze. I feel pierced. In a fuzzy, roll over and pant sort of way.
Julian’s lips quirk, displaying a dimple like a playful afterthought to his finely formed lips and strong, tapering jawline. The sight of it is shocking, transforming him into a more approachable version of his abnormally attractive thirty-two-year-old self.
“You were going to tell me what an SLTA is, but I think I’ve got it. Sprouts, lettuce, tomato, and avocado, right?”
Put a fork in me, I can die happy.
“Y-yes,” I stammer, then blush some more. I’m a lightweight blusher on a good day, and clearly this is the Best Day Ever. “But it’s really good. We do it on homemade rye bread, all organic, heirloom tomatoes, with a little balsamic—”
His sudden grin slaps the air from my lungs. In the rare photos I’ve seen of him, he’s never smiling.
He should smile all the goddamn time.
“Sounds great but I’m a certified carnivore. I’ll take the BLT. Can you add avocado?”
At this point, there’s so much extra blood in my face I can’t feel my toes. “Absolutely. Good choice.” I scribble down his order. “Anything to drink?”
His gaze lifts over my head to the row of blackboards listing beverage options. Momentarily surrendering propriety, I stare at the strong column of his throat, feast on the broad shoulders beneath his jacket, worship the slight indent beside his mouth where I saw the dimple. He’s taller than I expected. Around six-three. Until this moment, I’ve only ever seen him onstage and always from at least fifty feet away.
At length, he murmurs, “So many options.”
Descending from memories of his electrifying stage presence, I find his gaze roaming my chest. It takes a second or two for me to realize he’s looking for a name tag. Unfortunately, my nipples don’t get the memo. My white t-shirt, soft and thin, barely puts up a fight. I cross my arms quickly over my chest, vowing to never again forego an apron.
For a moment I think I’m in the clear—then his whiskey eyes snap up and narrow on my face. His jaw clenches, and he looks up again, pointedly staring at a blackboard. Some emotion I can’t name flashes across his chiseled features. It’s not quite revulsion but definitely not lust. Annoyance maybe, or disappointment.
Whatever it is, it stiffens my spine. Does he think I have a hidden remote control for my nipples? That I use them like other women use cleavage and perfume?
Rabid fan I may be, but groupie I am not.
“My name is Rose.” My voice is on the edge of snappish. “I recommend an Italian Soda with the BLT. Raspberry and cream is my favorite. Or if you want something caffeinated, a cappuccino with a side of ice water. And by the way, although I love your music, I have absolutely no desire for your autograph.” I wait for him to look down at me, then glance significantly below his belt. “Or anything else, for that matter.”
His eyes widen; I hear a startled inhale. Ignoring the mouthwatering sight of a chagrined flush on his cheekbones, I lift my brows, press my lips into a thin line, and wait.
Finally, with a self-effacing shrug, he smiles crookedly. I translate the gesture to mean, What can I say? Women throw themselves at me all the time.
“I’ll take the cappuccino, please.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Rose.”
A few minutes ago my name in his mouth might have produced a different, more salacious result. Now, however, it makes my teeth clench in resentment for my traitorous body and stubborn mouth. I actually do want an autograph.
I quickly ring up his order, take his money, and hand him a laminated card for the miniature easel on his table. I’m turning to escape when his voice stops me.
“Is this hand painted?” he asks, holding up the card.
My head-to-mouth filter stops me from asking why he’s still talking to me. It’s not his fault he has a voice like sex. Besides, Owen and I need happy customers more than I need to cling to the shreds of my hero worship for Julian Ashburn.
Making an effort to sound pleasant, I reply, “Yes. An owner’s mother painted them.”
Julian flips the card up between his fingers, showing me the image. “The Prince of Swords, huh?” The dimple makes an appearance. “Tarot is an interesting choice.”
I shrug and point at the little placard in front of the register where Aunt Katherine posted a succinct rundown of card meanings. I love the woman to death, but she’s a bit of an oddball. If it were up to her, we’d have Fortune Telling and Astral Journeying on the menu.
Julian bends forward to read the placard. “Prince of Swords. Creative. Master of words. Idealistic. Argumentative. Dangerous.” He looks up, eyes molten with humor. “Huh. Well, let’s hope the first two prove true.”
Does that mean you're writing new songs? I bite back the question. “Your food will be out shortly, Mr. Ashburn.”
“Just Julian, please.”
I nod, smile hard, then book it for the kitchen window to place his order. As I turn, I see our part-time associate Christy walking out of the back, returning from her meal break. Thank God.
“Christy, can you fix a cappuccino for, uh…” I glance across the chaotic sea of tables and eclectic furniture and finally spot Julian sitting in a stuffed armchair near the front windows. I nod in his direction. “Black beanie. An ice water, too.”
“Sure thing, boss,” she chirps and sidles past me.
Freed from my counter-watching duties, I make a beeline for my journal and pen. Leaning against the back of a bakery case, I scribble down a series of disjointed thoughts. Some will become lyrics. Others, such as pompous introverted artist ego, make no sense and will fade along with their ink.
I’m dimly aware of Christy delivering the cappuccino. The sounds of the coffeehouse fade as the current of words takes me under.
His fingers scrape me raw,
Sandpaper on my lips.
Tumbling rocks, whispered thoughts,
Why has it come to this?
Lost before I’m found.
Why has it come to—
The voice of my current muse asks, “Do you have a second?”
I release an undignified squeak and look up. Julian, wearing a slight smile, glances from my journal to my burning face. I slap the notebook closed.
“Of course. How can I help?”
“By any chance, is a manager or, uh, the owner here today?”
No convenient lie comes to mind. “You’re looking at one of the owners.”
“Truly?” His brows lift in surprise. At my frown, he adds quickly, “I didn’t mean… What I mean to say is, that’s great. You’re—well, you’re young. Under thirty, right? Owning a business is a big accomplishment. I’ve heard a lot of solid feedback about this place.”
He shuts his mouth, exhaling through his nose. That soft flush is back on his cheeks, and he’s looking everywhere but at me.
He babbles. My God, Julian Ashburn babbles.
My recent embarrassment is forgotten. Like I just tossed back a shot of liquor, my belly feels warm and wiggly. I grin helplessly, bowled over by the unexpected, charming vision of a songwriting prodigy stammering like a preteen.
He’s human just like me.
“Nice save,” I tell him.
He chuckles softly—honey over tumbling rocks—and glances up. “Yeah, sorry about that. I’m a little rusty at, uh, talking to people.”
“You don’t say,” I deadpan.
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” he mutters, but he’s smiling at the floor.
“Yes, very much,” I admit, then take mercy on him. “What’s the question?”
He looks up, pointing vaguely over his shoulder. “I saw a flyer for open mic nights on Fridays. Is that a seasonal thing or is it happening tonight?”
The warm feeling in my stomach turns queasy. “Every Friday, tonight included.” I glance out the windows, inordinately pleased to see the continued downpour. “Not sure what kind of crowd we’ll pull tonight. Might not be worth staying for.”
Don’t stay. Please don’t stay.
Julian rubs a palm over his jaw and winces. He’s back to avoiding my eyes. “Uh, this is a little awkward for me, but is there any chance I can get on the list?”
My stomach nosedives and I gasp, then choke horribly on my next breath. Coughing and wheezing, I bend in half, one hand braced on the bakery case. The only coherent thought in my head runs on a loop. This is not happening, this is not happening…
Christy’s small hand pounds unnecessarily on my back. “Rose! Are you okay? Do you need something?”
“No,” I croak, straightening with effort.
Slow breath in. Slow breath out. I wipe my watering eyes, grateful I passed on mascara this morning. When I can take a breath without pain, I finally risk looking up. Julian’s expression is tight with concern and uncertainty.
“Are you sure I can’t get you some water?” asks Christy.
I shake my head. With a curious glance at Julian, she retreats back to the ordering counter.
“Are you all right?” asks Julian softly.
I rub a hand over my aching chest. “I’m sorry, you just took me by surprise. Did I hallucinate you saying you wanted to perform at our open mic night?”
He blinks in bemusement, shaking his head slowly.
I laugh with an edge of hysteria. “Are you fucking kidding? Why?”
His lips tighten, and he looks down. “If you don’t want me to, that’s fine. Just thought I’d ask.”
Too loud, Rose.
I look nervously at the several customers who are now staring in our direction. Christy’s eyes narrow speculatively.
Lowering my voice, I hiss, “Of course you can perform.” Grabbing the clipboard hanging on the wall behind me, I use the attached pen to cross out my name and add another. “Is eight to eight-thirty okay?”
His smile is warmer than sunshine. “Great.” He turns to leave, then hesitates. His gaze hits my face. Piercing. “Thanks, Rose.”
He’s halfway across the room before I realize he never answered my question.