Blaire Calloway has planned every Instagram-worthy moment of her cupcake and cocktails shop launch down to the tiniest detail. What she didn’t plan on? Ronan Knight and his old-school sports bar next door opening on the very same day. He may be super swoony, but Blaire hasn’t spent years obsessing over buttercream and bourbon to have him ruin her chance at success.
From ax throwing (his place) to frosting contests (hers), Blaire and Ronan are constantly trying to one-up each other in a battle to win new customers. But with every clash, there’s also an undeniable chemistry. When an even bigger threat to their business comes to town, they’re forced to call a temporary time-out on their own war and work together. And the more time Blaire spends getting to know the real Ronan, the more she wonders if it’s possible to have her cupcake and eat it too.
Just a Big Old Pile of Crap
“I have a fantastic idea for your little cupcake shop, Care Blaire!”
I cringe at the nickname, how ridiculously loud my dad is, and the reference to my first ever solo entrepreneurial endeavor as my “little cupcake shop.” He doesn’t mean for it to sound condescending, although it does.
My first inclination is to throw some sarcasm at him, but I’m aware he’s trying to be helpful in his own misguided way, and the conversation will be over that much sooner if I play along. “What’s this fantastic idea that has you so excited?”
“The café right beside Decadence is going out of business at the end of the year. I’d be happy to pick up the lease on that building and you could open up shop right next door to us! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And so much more practical than what you’re doing right now.”
I hold my phone away from my ear and breathe in and out to the count of four so I don’t snap at him. “My current lease is a year, Dad.”
“Can’t you break it?”
“Not without a penalty, no.”
“Hmm. Well, I could cover that for you. I don’t think it hurts for you to give this a go on your own for a few months, but then you can come back home and be part of the family business. And obviously I’d provide you with the financial capital if you decided to make the transition.”
And there’s the braised carrot I was waiting for him to dangle. “Can I think about it?” There is absolutely zero chance that I’m going to take him up on his offer. It’s not that I don’t want the financial help. It’s all the strings that come along with it that I’m not interested in dealing with.
“Of course, of course. It’s a great opportunity and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on it. Why don’t we talk later in the week?”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
“Love you, Care Blaire!”
“Love you, too, Dad.” I end the call on a frustrated sigh and then nearly do a face plant into the concrete trying to sidestep a pile of dog poop. I also come perilously close to dropping my Tupperware container full of buttercream-topped delights. The dog doody happens to be decorating the sidewalk right out front of my “little cupcake shop.” I mentally shake a fist at the thoughtless dog owner who left it there as a special surprise.
This better not be a sign.
I glance around, looking for something to…remove the visual and olfactory offense, but the sidewalk is trash free. Normally I would be happy about the lack of old newspapers or takeout food wrappers blowing down the street, but today it’s rather inconvenient. The last thing I want is a stinky mess sitting front and center outside of my not-yet-open storefront. As a helpful warning to other passersby, I pluck a yellow flower from one of the planters brightening the entrance to my brand new cocktail café/bakery, aptly named Buttercream and Booze—scheduled to open in just one week—and stick the stem in the fresh pile. I’ll come back out and get rid of it so no one else suffers the same almost-fate.
Even the nearly craptastic accident and my conversation with my dad don’t dim my good spirits for long. I rummage through my purse in search of my keys—they always migrate to the bottom of my purse. I finally snag them, slide the key into the lock and push the door open. It tinkles cheerily, an auditory accompaniment to the vibrant, clean interior.
I wanted simple, fresh, and chic without being overly bubblegum adorable. So I nixed any pink from the décor that doesn’t include cupcake frosting. Instead I went with pale hardwood flooring, simple white tables and luxurious chairs upholstered in pale gray, easy-to-clean faux leather. Pops of vibrant yellows, pale blue, and silver accent each table’s centerpiece. The windows are sparkling and streak-free, the signage across the front of the café is clean, simple, and classy in eye-catching gray with a metallic sheen.
I inhale deeply as I step inside, the faint scent of fresh paint and bleach almost entirely eclipsed by the lemon oil diffusing in the corner, and the lingering smell of the real vanilla candles from yesterday.
I forget all about cleaning up the poopy present and shriek when I notice the box sitting on the bar. I set my purse and Tupperware on the closest table and my coffee on the bar. Despite my excitement, I take a moment to wash my hands prior to nabbing a pair of scissors. I carefully drag the tip along the seam to slice through the tape.
“I thought I heard you making sex noises out here.” My best friend Daphne appears at the end of the hall, scaring the heck out of me.
The scissors slip and catch my finger. “Ow! Crap!” A bead of blood wells from the cut and I suck the end of my thumb, the metallic tang making me slightly woozy. I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to the sight of blood.
“I’m so sorry.” Daphne rushes across the café, heels clipping on the hardwood. She nabs the small first-aid kit behind the bar, flips it open and retrieves a bandage.
“It’s okay. I’m just clumsy this morning, and jittery.”
“Everything okay?” Her expression shifts to concern as she quickly covers the wound with a Band-Aid.
“Oh yeah, you know how it is. I woke up at three because I needed to use the bathroom and my brain wouldn’t shut off. Then I got another idea for opening day cupcakes so I figured I’d make a test batch while drinking an entire pot of coffee.”
She glances at the adorable cupcake clock on the wall. “So you’ve been up since three?”
“Mm hmm. And of course my dad called this morning with another one of his amazing ideas.”
She grimaces. “Oh no.”
“What wonderful suggestions did he have this time?” Daphne is aware of my parents’ constant push for me to join the family business. I love them, and they’ve worked hard to get where they are, but their dreams and mine don’t line up. They love sautéing and roasting and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. I love butter and sugar and vanilla and not hobnobbing.
I give her the abridged version.
“And how did the conversation end?”
“All I said was that I’d think about it.”
“You did not!”
I hold up a hand. “I’m not honestly going to think about, Daph, but I also didn’t feel like listening to an hour-long lecture on why being part of the family business would be better for me. I know exactly what will happen if I go back to working with my family. I won’t have a say in anything. They’ll take over the whole thing and change it from my cocktails and cupcakes theme into something ridiculous and highbrow. They’ll strip me of all decision-making power, pooh-pooh all of my ideas, and I’ll get to watch my dream go up in flames.” It sounds dramatic, but it’s not. My family is well-intentioned but pushy. “I didn’t work this hard just to go back to kobe beef and duck fat truffle fries.” Not that there’s anything wrong with either. I enjoy eating both, but I don’t enjoy preparing them the way my family does.
“Okay. That’s good. I was worried there for a second.” Daphne sheds her thin cardigan and hops lithely up onto the bar top. I finally notice her outfit; she’s dressed in a pair of pale yellow jeans and a light-gray shirt with Buttercream and Booze in silver and blue letters across her chest.
“Oh my God! The shirts came in!” My volume is far too loud for the early hour, but my excitement cannot be contained. “I need to take a picture.” I pat my hips, but my phone is in my purse, which is sitting on the table where I left it. I raise a single finger. “Hold on! I need my phone. Or maybe I should get the good camera. And we need a cupcake. Actually, we should stage a bunch of photos.”
“Blaire.” Daphne grabs my wrist. “Take a breath or six and chill the eff out.”
“But we need a picture. One for our Instagram. Oh! We should host a t-shirt giveaway!”
“Done and done. I posted half an hour ago and it’s already in our stories and on our Facebook page and posted to the website. Social media managed.” She says the last part with a British accent, mimicking “mischief managed” from Harry Potter. We’re both huge fans. Sometimes we have weekend movie marathons despite having seen the films quite literally a hundred times. Don’t judge. There are worse addictions.
Daphne is a photographer and owns her own business a couple of blocks down. She opened her own studio last year and I was right there with her, helping in whatever way I could. Unlike B&B, her place didn’t need too much work, but I was there with a paintbrush and moral support. I even brought the Cupcakes To Go! truck on opening day to help entice new clients with sweet treats.
Daphne’s actually the person who told me about this place. She’s also been kind enough to help get all of my social media up and running. Currently, I pay her in cupcakes since I can’t afford much else in the way of compensation. She’s assured me this is a great addition to her portfolio and if Buttercream and Booze takes off she’ll most definitely benefit. I squeeze her hand. “You are so amazing.”
“I know. It’s one of the many reasons I’m your bestie.” She winks. “Now open the damn box so we can get excited about something else and you can freak out about more potential Insta posts.”
“Right! Yes!” I take one of those deep breaths Daphne suggested because I’m speaking like I’ve mainlined cocaine after drinking seventeen Red Bulls and everything I say is punctuated with an exclamation mark. “Calming myself before I get more excited,” I mutter as I open the flaps. That calm lasts about a quarter of a second and then I’m back to excited freak-out.
“They are so much fun!” I gently free one of the unicorn martini glasses from the box. “Aren’t they the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen?”
“They are absolutely the most adorable things I have seen.” Daphne bites her lip, obviously fighting laughter.
“Well, I think they’re perfect.” I can already imagine the specialty martini and the cupcakes I’ll make to go with them. The glasses were a little expensive, and slightly outside of my budget, but they’re so fun and they’ll look amazing in photos for social media posts.
“I wholeheartedly agree. You should display a few up there.” She motions to the shelf adjacent to the bar that showcases a row of candy-inspired martini glasses.
“Ohhh! Great idea!” I carefully free two more unicorn glasses from the box and round the counter.
Daphne hops down off the bar. “I’ll be right back.”
I mm-hmm, too consumed with rearranging the shelf to be concerned with where Daphne is going.
Daphne returns as I finish positioning the glassware. She’s grinning and her hands are clasped behind her back. “Close your eyes.”
I slam my lids together. “They’re closed.”
I raise them over my head and Daphne laughs. “Just to the side, like you’re halfway into a jumping jack.”
I lower them so they’re out in a T. “Oh my God. What do you have? What came?”
“Stop jumping around and you’ll find out.”
I didn’t even realize I was bouncing with excitement. I still and wait while Daphne drapes something over my head. When she ties it at my waist behind my back I start bouncing again. “It’s my apron, isn’t it?”
“Stop moving and don’t you dare peek.” She smacks my butt.
“It was a tap, you sucky baby.”
“It was unexpected.” And the most action I’ve had in a long time. Opening one’s own business means I have very little time for anything but work, more work, and limited sleep.
“Eyes closed until I tell you.” She takes me by the shoulders and pushes me forward. “Okay. You can open them.”
I pry one lid open, and then the other. Daphne has moved me to the center of the café, where a massive mirror with the Buttercream and Booze decal hangs from the wall. I’m off to the right, so I can see my brand new apron without the obstruction of opaque letters cutting through it.
My hands start flapping without my permission, so I ball them into fists and hide them behind my back for a moment while I search for some calm. “It’s just so perfect, isn’t it?” I’m halfway to tears, I’m so excited.
But then, that’s what this place reduces me to: tears and excitement. I’ve worked my tushy off to get here.
“It is.” Daphne, being the awesome friend that she is, hands me a tissue before I even have to ask. “You’ve come a long way from weekend markets and a cupcake truck.”
I survey the product of all my hard work. “It’s been a journey, hasn’t it?”
“An uphill battle to the top of cupcake mountain, really,” Daphne agrees.
“I’d rather take the hard road than compromise my dream.” I run my fingertips over the letters that spell out Buttercream and Booze. My phone chimes from inside my purse, signaling a call. The ringtone, which is “The Addams Family” theme song, means it’s my mother.
Daphne and I look at my purse and then each other. “I’m letting that go to voicemail. I one hundred percent guarantee my mom is calling to try to argue my dad’s case.”
Daphne sighs. “They really don’t get it, do they?”
“Have you told them when your grand opening is?”
“Absolutely not.” I do not need them showing up on opening day throwing advice at me. And honestly, it wouldn’t be that difficult for them to find the information on their own if they had the wherewithal to check out social media, but I’ve been extremely vague about the whole thing.
“It’s too bad they can’t just support you without taking everything over.”
“They have the best of intentions and a complete lack of chill.” Two traits I’m not unfamiliar with.
“Truer words have never been spoken.” Daphne blows out a breath. “It’d be nice if they would let you access your trust without forcing their opinions on you.”
“They really love the concept of conditional independence.” My family owns some of the most highly regarded, exclusive fine dining establishments in the Pacific Northwest. The expectation was always that I, too, would become a chef and carry on the family legacy.
She taps on the edge of the counter. “It’s just frustrating to know you have the money, but if you use it there are all kinds of stupid stipulations that go along with it. Sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a trust in the first place, doesn’t it?”
Daphne’s family is well off, too. We went to the same prep school and have been friends since grade school. The main difference is that her family has backed every single dream she’s ever had an inkling to pursue, whereas mine keeps trying to hammer the square peg that is me into a round hole of their design. “Hence the reason the money is staying where it is until this place is established and I’ve proven I can make it work.”
Fingers crossed that’s what happens. For the past several years I’ve been squirreling away money and living in a crap apartment because I’m determined to make a go of this, on my own merit. So I put the research in, found a storefront I could afford in an area where I thought I could be successful, worked up my business plan, secured the financing, and now here I am, opening my own place, without my family’s input, much to their chagrin.
Daphne motions to the shop. “How much more proof do they need?”
“Running a successful cupcake truck business isn’t quite the same as having a storefront.” I run my finger around the rim of a martini glass.
Daphne taps on the counter. “I actually think the cupcake truck was probably the more difficult of the two. The crap you had to deal with on a regular basis was insane. At least you don’t have to worry about slashed tires anymore.”
“Thank goodness for that.” The food truck business is no joke. It’s wildly competitive, territorial and exceptionally cutthroat. The number of times I had to replace my tires because some jealous competitor wanted to take down Cupcakes To Go! was ridiculous.
My family was always worried for my safety. Regardless, it was my first attempt at being an independent business owner. Now here I am with my own storefront and no intention of ever working for my family again if I can help it.
Back when I was younger and still trying to appease my parents, I went to culinary school and apprenticed under renowned chef Raphael Du Beouf. He was talented, handsome, and suave. I was naïve, impressionable, and smitten. I fell for his sexy accent, his ridiculously capable hands, and his lines. So of course, like many stupid twenty-somethings, I soaked up the attention and praise he lavished on me, and eventually we started sleeping together. I thought I was in love, while he thought I wouldn’t find out that he was sleeping with three other aspiring chefs on the side.
Broken hearted and totally disenchanted, my parents—who felt partly responsible since they were the ones who pushed us together in the first place after he started working at one of their restaurants—funded a year abroad for me in Paris. I got over Raphael and fell in love with everything pastry and decadence. I returned with a new plan that—much to my family’s shock—did not include taking my place in their business.
So I made connections of my own and started from the ground up. I rented a booth at the local street market and sold cupcakes every weekend while working back of house at a high-end bakery. Which is where I met my friend and eventual business partner, Paul. He also worked the local street market circuit and eventually we pooled our resources, bought a food truck, and launched our mobile cupcake shop, Cupcakes to Go! On the weekends we would still hit the local markets, but during the week we made our rounds and delivered our delicious, decadent wares.
So as much as I rue my relationship with Raphael, his womanizing ways set me on this path. No regrets.
I shake off my trip down memory lane and motion to my apron-clad self. “Shall we take some Insta-worthy pics?”
“Yes!” Daphne jumps to her feet and grabs her camera—it’s pretty much an additional appendage.
She poses me in various locations around the shop, holding all manner of props, including the cupcakes I baked prior to my arrival. “You look like the love child of Betty Crocker and Ward Cleaver,” she mumbles as she moves around me, snapping shot after shot.
I’m a big fan of fifties-style dresses with full skirts and up-dos reminiscent of the same era. It’s not meant to be a gimmick; it’s just my thing. I pluck one of the decorative martini glasses from the counter display and am about to take a fake sip when a massive bang shakes the entire store, making the windows rattle and the bottles on the bar tinkle. I almost drop the martini glass. It’s plastic, so it wouldn’t be a travesty if I did, but still.
“What the heck was that?” I set the glass on the closest table and rush to the front window, surveying the street. I don’t know what I expect to find. A tank? A wrecking ball?
“I don’t know, but it felt like an earthquake.”
I spin around to face Daphne. “When was the last time Seattle had an earthquake?”
She doesn’t even hesitate. “2001, I think.”
“Why would you even know that?”
Daphne shrugs and then covers her head with her hands when another violent bang rattles the martini glasses—the real ones—so badly, one of my new unicorn glasses falls off the shelf and shatters on the floor.
“Oh no!” Daphne slaps a palm over her mouth.
We regard the sparkly puddle with mutual horror; the gold horn sticks straight up, the eyeballs peer wonkily at us from the carnage.
“Save the unicorns!” I shout.
We scramble over to the shelf, carefully grabbing the rest of the stemware before it can meet the same sad fate. I cradle them to my chest, collecting as many as I can.
The next bang isn’t as unexpected, but it’s still jarring. I jump and nearly lose my hold on a unicorn. As it is, I have a horn poking me in the boob. At least the glasses are no longer at risk of falling off the shelf.
“I think it might be coming from next door.” Daphne carefully sets her armload of glasses on the counter.
“What the hell is over there? A portal to another dimension?” I prop my fist on my hip and glare at the wall, as if my angry face is going to make the banging on the other side stop.
“An old bar I think?” Daphne and I both cringe with the next loud slam. “I’ve never really paid much attention to it, to be honest.”
“It sounds like they’re coming through the freaking wall! I’m going over there to see what’s going on.”
I grab the empty box and carefully put the shattered unicorn martini glass pieces inside. Whoever is over there needs to see what they’ve done.
“I’ll be right back.” I rush outside and manage to sidestep the doggy doo again as I stalk over to the run-down bar next door. I glance up at the faded, peeling sign above the storefront: THE KNIGHT CAP. I reluctantly admit, in my head, that it’s a good name for a pub, or bar, or whatever this place is.
The windows are covered with brown paper, as is the door, but another loud bang comes from inside. I knock quite vigorously and shout hello, but I’m sure no one can hear me over the ridiculous racket coming from inside. I also catch the faint pounding of bass.
I decide my best bet is to poke my head in and see what the heck is going on. I yank on the door and it opens an inch, then slams closed again, as if there’s a poltergeist on the other side holding it shut. I try again, struggling with the door, which shouldn’t be this heavy. There’s some kind of wind vortex trying to suck it closed again, but I finally manage to pry it open and slide my body through the gap, still clutching my box with the broken unicorn martini glass. My dress nearly gets caught, but I yank it free before I get stuck in the door.
I cough a few times, breathing in sawdust. The place is absolutely filthy and a wreck. It’s deceptively large and long, and the entire back of the pub is covered in plywood. Now that I’m inside, I can make out more of the song booming through the sound system, causing the floor to vibrate. It’s some rock tune with heavy guitar riffs and a lot of drums.
“Hello!” I shout and take a few cautious steps across the dusty hardwood. When no one answers, I call out a second time.
A large, somewhat hulking figure appears in the doorway between the old, dusty bar and the new plywood enclosure. The garish lights behind him eclipse his face in shadow until he takes another step forward, bringing him into view.
Standing about twenty feet away is a well-built man wearing a pair of paint-splattered jeans, scuffed-up work boots, and a red-and-black plaid shirt. The sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, showing off vibrantly colored tattoos that cover both of his forearms and disappear under the sleeves. His hair is cut short and styled with some kind of product so it’s perfectly smooth, not a strand out of place. An intentional, curated messiness. And he’s holding an axe.
Why is this guy holding an axe?
I take an uncertain step back toward the door, because, as I was saying, he’s holding an axe.
I prop my fist on my hip and tip my chin up as axe man’s gaze sweeps over me. Judging. Assessing. His left eyebrow quirks up. He has eyes the color of bourbon, high cheekbones, full lips and a rugged, square jaw with a lovely five o’clock shadow, despite it barely being eight in the morning.
“What the heck is going on here?” I motion to the mess of a bar.
That quirked eyebrow rises higher. “Excuse me?”
“What is this?” I snap.
Axe Man’s full lips pull up into a grin. “It’s called a bar, and judging from the look of it, I think you fell down the wrong rabbit hole, Alice. Wonderland isn’t here.”