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LOVE IN A NUTSHELL (Chapter 1)
Kate Appleton needed a job. Again.
Actually, need didn't come close to describing the hunger and sharp bite of desperation speeding her steps across Depot Brewing Company's parking lot on that crisp October afternoon. Just as the town marina to the right of the microbrewery was growing empty of boats, Keene's Harbor, Michigan, was growing empty of tourists and their cash. And, at this moment, Kate needed cash. She had moved to Keene's Harbor a couple of weeks ago, eager to change her parents' dilapidated lake house into a thriving bed-and-breakfast. They had moved to Naples, Florida, and the harsh reality was that it hadn't been used in years, except as a nut storage facility by a family of industrious squirrels. Ironic, since a homemade plaque proclaiming the house "The Nutshell" had adorned the front entrance since before she could remember.
In any event, the house needed a lot of work, and her parents were less than enthusiastic about pumping tens of thousands of dollars into a home that was already underwater on its mortgage. To make matters worse, they'd gotten a letter from some lawyer last week that the bank had gone into bankruptcy and the mortgage had been sold to some private investor. He'd offered to release Kate's parents from the debt in exchange for the property. It was actually a fairly generous offer, considering the market, but Kate was trying to build a life for herself in Keene's Harbor. And dammit, her family home wasn't for sale. Depot Brewing wasn't just Kate's last shot at employment. It was the last shot at her dreams.
* * *
CRIMSON MAPLE leaves crunched beneath her leather boots as she marched toward the handsome yellow brick and sandstone building and checked off her plan of action. She would be firm, yet polite. Honest, yet not to the point of over-sharing. And she would go straight to the top, to the guy who could make her, or— Forget that. She wouldn't consider the possibility of someone breaking her. And she wouldn't consider walking away without a job.
Kate drew in a breath, pulled back her shoulders, and wrapped her hand around the hammered-bronze door handle of her new workplace.
* * *
MATT CULHANE sat holed up in his small and admittedly cluttered office behind Depot Brewing Company's taproom. He wanted one last look at his inventory spreadsheet before the after-work crowd showed up. Not that he begrudged his customers their fun, but he should have chosen to stay put in his dungeon of an office in the back of the microbrewery rather than move into the portion of the building housing the newly constructed but noisy restaurant. He was deciding whether to work out a trade with one of his brewer buddies for some Chinese hops when he heard Jerry, his hospitality manager, greet someone in the taproom.
"Is Matt Culhane in?" a woman asked Jerry. "I need to talk to him. His office is in the back, right?"
"Yes," Jerry replied. "But … Wait, you can't—"
"Thanks so much for your help," the woman replied. "I can find my way."
Kate knocked once on the open door and swept into the office, closing the door behind her and leaving Jerry standing on the other side openmouthed and clearly flustered.
Culhane's first thought was that she was a woman on a mission. His second thought was that he was intrigued. She was just over five feet tall, and had short-cropped blond hair, big hazel eyes, and a wide mouth that he suspected would light up a room when she smiled.
Matt rose, rounded his desk, and extended his hand.
"Hi, I'm Matt Culhane."
Kate took his hand and gave it a firm businesslike shake. "I know. I'm Kate Appleton. I don't have a job. And it's your fault. Twenty minutes ago, I was fired because of you."
"Because of me?"
"Yep. From Bagger's Tavern, down on Keene Avenue. It was all because of your skunky beer."
Before he could respond, she planted herself in the one guest chair that didn't have files stacked on it.
Cute but crazy, Matt thought, following her lead and returning to sit in his chair behind his desk. And oddly enough, it did nothing to diminish his attraction to her. "Harley fired you?"
"He did," Kate said.
"Did he say why?"
"Apparently, I'm no longer to be trusted behind the bar, because bad beer passed from tap to lips. I don't think that's fair. And when I look at the whole mess, I figure it's your responsibility. It was your beer," she replied in a patient tone. "I moved to Keene's Harbor three weeks ago and lobbied like crazy to get even that part-time bartending job. Then I lost it over bad beer. Now I have nothing. Every store downtown is owned locally, and every owner runs their place alone in the slow season."
Matt smiled. "That's to be expected. A town built to hold several thousand summer visitors can be pretty empty come the cool weather. Why'd you move here in the off-season?"
"Well, let's just say my options were extremely limited. I needed an inexpensive place to stay, and the mortgage payments on my parents' lake house are a heckuva lot less than any decent rental."
Actually, she was a few months behind on the payments. Between her crapola job at Bagger's and the endless repairs on the house, her savings were pretty much gone. She'd talked to the bank and they'd agreed to let her catch up over the next six months, but that was before they'd gone belly-up. Kate drove the thought from her mind, replacing it with the happy memories that had inspired her to move to Keene's Harbor in the first place. "I'd spent summers here as a kid and loved it. I thought I could come up with some sort of job."
Apparently, she had some history around town, and she also looked to be in the general ballpark of his age. Still, it was no surprise their paths hadn't crossed earlier. He'd stuck with his townie pack. In his high school days, the summer girls weren't worth the snobbishness some of them had thrown at the locals while sunning on Lake Michigan's long stretch of beach.
"So you're a summer person," he said. He wasn't into line-drawing anymore, but he couldn't resist teasing just a little, trying to provoke the same little flush of emotion to her cheeks he'd seen when she first walked into his office.
"Thanks, but I think of myself more as a Citizen of All Seasons."
"Works for me. Where's your parents' place?"
"It's on the lake about two miles north of town. It's old, big, and drafty. And it's a huge money pit, which brings us back to the aforementioned skunky beer," she said, obviously trying to drive the conversation to a set destination.
Matt was curious enough to give her the room to run. "I'll agree that Harley serves my beer, but I'm not going any further than that. The keg could have been bad for a lot of reasons, including dirty tap lines, bad tapping, or the fact that it was past its expiration date. But the bottom line is that I didn't tell him to fire you."
"Just the same, honor compels that you give me a job."
Another surprise bombshell. "A job?"
"Yes. And I'm available to start immediately."
Lucky me, he thought. The woman was clearly crazy, and yet strangely appealing in her overly earnest, convoluted reasoning.
"Supposing, for the sake of discussion, that we were hiring right now," he said. "Other than a couple of weeks at Bagger's, what's your work experience?"
She folded her hands in her lap, a gesture more appropriate for a navy blue interview suit than jeans and a puffy, off-white down jacket still zipped up to her chin. He wondered what she was going to wear when it really got cold around here.
"I have a B.A. in Drama from a small college in Ohio."
This time he couldn't fight back a smile. "I didn't ask about your education. I asked what you can do. Before you came to Keene's Harbor, did you have a job?"
He waited for more, but it didn't appear to be coming.
"And?" he asked.
"I was an assistant editor at a business magazine headquartered downstate, outside of Detroit."
"And?" he prompted again.
"I moved here."
"As you said, with very little in the way of options. What happened to the job?"
"The skills aren't relevant to what you do here, but if you really need to know, I was let go."
"It wasn't directly performance-related, so again, I don't think it's all that relevant."
He was hooked. He had to know. He was sure it was something worth hearing.
"Spill it," he said. "Lay it on me."
Kate bit her lower lip. "I had a little incident changing the black ink cartridge for the printer I shared with a couple other people. Maybe it was because we'd switched to a generic brand, or maybe it was because someone—perhaps with the name of Melvin—had messed with it, but whatever the case, I got ink all over the front of my dress. And then while I was in the bathroom trying to soak what I could from the dress, the fire alarm went off."
"Sounds like something you'd see on Cinemax after midnight."
"Let's just say that when presented the choice between potential death and a bit of semi-nudity smack in the middle of downtown Royal Oak, I let the skin show."
"You didn't have much of an option."
She raised her right shoulder in a half shrug. "True. As it turned out, someone—perhaps with the name of Melvin—had pulled the fire alarm. There was no fire, but between the scene on the street and the fact that the video from the building's security camera somehow hit the Internet and went viral, my boss let me go. He said I had become a liability to the magazine. No one could take me seriously. And so someone with the name of Melvin got my job."
"That stinks," Matt said.
Kate nodded in agreement. "It did. But I learned a few good lessons, including always use brand-name ink and watch out for guys named Melvin."
Matt laughed. Kate Appleton might be an involuntary exhibitionist, but so far she'd shown herself to be smart and quick with an answer, and she wore her emotions on her face. His gut told him she was possibly a little nutty, but beyond that a decent person. And Matt generally went with his instincts.
"Now, about that job?" she asked.
He leaned forward, elbows on desk. "I'll start by saying that the bad beer at Bagger's was a problem on his end of the system. Granted, there's a remote possibility it happened here, but that part of the process is under tight control, so I'm not talking to you to redeem my honor or anything like that."
She nodded. "Okay. So long as the talk involves a job, I'm listening."
Kate Appleton did not appear to be a believer in the theory of leverage, in that he had it and she did not. Still, she was bold. He appreciated that about her. And, at the moment, she might just be exactly what he needed.
"There have been some incidents over the past few months," Matt said, lowering his voice. "They didn't start out as anything big or all that awful. In fact, for a while there, I just kind of put it down to a streak of bad luck."
"What kind of bad luck?"
He leaned back in his chair and considered when it all started. "Well, call it ego, but I'd like to think that last spring, my first failed batch of beer in years was more than just a slipup on my part. Since then, it's been small stuff … misrouted deliveries, flat tires on the delivery trucks … that kind of thing."
"All of which, pardon me for saying this, could be put down to employee screwups."
Matt nodded. "I know, but they're happening more and more often. I really think one of my employees is trying to sabotage my business."
Kate leaned forward in her seat. "What makes you think it's an employee?"
"Access. Whoever is behind it knows my schedule and my business. And, most of the incidents have occurred in employee-only areas, where a customer would be immediately noticed."
Kate raised her eyebrows. "So you want me to help find some deranged lunatic with a beer vendetta."
"I'd hire a private investigator, but this time of year, it would be nearly impossible for a stranger to go unnoticed for more than a day. You, on the other hand, are not a total outsider. And, between the impressive performance you just gave convincing me to hire you and your degree in drama, I'm guessing you can act a part if you have to. That makes you a great candidate for the job I have in mind."
She tilted her head. "And that would be what?"
"I'd be hiring you to be a floater. If someone is out sick or there's a crunch in a certain area of the operation, you'd be the one to step in."
"Even though it's likely that eighty percent of the time, I won't know what the heck I'm doing?"
"I get the sense you're a quick study."
"Absolutely. Definitely. I'm your girl. And since I'm so smart, I get the sense that I'll be more than a floater."
"Your job will be to tell me what's going on around here. What am I missing? What don't people want to say to my face? Who have you seen that shouldn't be here?"
"You want me to be a snitch?"
"How about a secret agent?"
She sat silent a moment, trying on the phrase for fit. "I like it. I'm Appleton. Kate Appleton. Licensed to Snoop."
"Good. You'll be my eyes and ears. If someone in Keene's Harbor has a grudge against me, you'll let me know."
"Sounds doable. From what I heard behind the bar at Bagger's, folks around here still do love to talk."
"Well, don't take the buzz too literally. The colder the weather gets, the bigger the stories around here grow. Town is pretty quiet after Labor Day, and we need something to keep life interesting."
"Fair enough. How much are you offering for the position?"
"Minimum wage," he replied.
"I'm sorry, but don't think so. I'm desperate, but not shortsighted. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out that I'm bringing gossip back to you, and at that point, I'm not going to be worth anything."
Matt grinned. "So what do you suggest?"
"How about minimum wage and a $20,000 bonus if I'm directly responsible for finding your saboteur?"
Matt considered his options, and they were limited. He couldn't hire a full-fledged townie any more than he could a PI. If word got out that some crazy was targeting Depot Brewery, it could scare away a lot of customers.
Kate smiled. "Hey. It's no more than you'd pay to a PI, and I only get paid if I actually solve the mystery. And, it could end up costing you a lot more to just ignore the thing and hope it goes away."
Matt paused to consider her argument. The truth was, the "accidents" were starting to add up and had already cost him more than $20,000. "Okay, deal."
Kate beamed. "I promise I'll be the best secret spy you've ever hired."
* * *
AT A quarter to nine on Friday morning, Kate parked at the far end of Depot Brewing Company's lot. She exited her ancient, beloved green-and-slightly-rust-spotted Jeep and pocketed her keys. Since she had the luxury of a handful of minutes, and Mother Nature had granted Keene's Harbor yet another blissfully sunny day, she checked out in more detail her new place of employment.
If Kate could whistle—which, sadly, she couldn't—this place would merit a nice long and low one. Small wonder the tourists flocked here like it was nirvana. An outdoor patio, now closed for the season, was surrounded by evergreens that must have cost Matt Culhane a fortune to have transplanted onto this sandy spit of land. She could picture the patio full of people, laughter, and music in the summertime. And she could picture Culhane here, too.
As the microbrewery's name implied, this had once been Keene's Harbor's railroad depot. Kate's dad, who was a history buff, had told her that this town had been built on the lumber trade. In a few decades, though, most of the area was logged out. A few decades after that, the rail spur to the harbor was abandoned. All that had been left was a wreck of a building that Kate recalled as a prime spot for the underage summer kids to drink a few super-sweet wine coolers.
Since she hadn't been alone at this party spot, she'd bet she wasn't the only one who got a kick out of Matt Culhane turning it into a microbrewery. He'd obviously added on to the small depot, but whoever had come up with the design had made sure that the original architecture still shone through.
Kate was unsure whether it was okay to go through the "employees only" door near where she'd parked, since there was a huge semi backed up to an open garage-type door next to it. She opted for the public entry.
Now that she wasn't wrapped in a haze of determination and desperation, she noted the mosaic in front of the entrance. Set into the concrete was the Depot Brewing logo—a steam locomotive surrounded by a bunch of whimsical items, including what looked to be a happy three-legged dog.
Kate stepped over the image, feeling that the dog had suffered enough without being trod upon. "You're a pretty cool dude, three legs or not."
"His name is Chuck, and he's my dog," Culhane said, suddenly standing in the open doorway. "Well, the real one is. That one's tile, so I don't think he'll be answering you."
She couldn't work up a single word in reply. The man was flat-out gorgeous. A muscled, dark-haired, blue-eyed, one-dimple-that-he-could-apparently-produce-at-will kind of gorgeous. She'd noted this yesterday, too, but anxiety had kept her on her game. If she'd babbled in the face of male hotness, she would have walked away empty-handed. Today, she had a job and her words were fleeting.
"I—I like dogs," she finally managed. She thought of her former dog, Stella, and felt a little lump forming in her chest.
"Good. And I like dog people. Why don't you come on in?"
Kate did, trying hard to cut back on the staring. She was sure he was wearing the same slightly faded chambray button-down shirt and pair of well-fit jeans as yesterday afternoon. New to his features was the shadow of a beard. His dark brown hair looked either tousled with sleep or the lack thereof.
"You're seriously tall," she said.
He laughed. "To you, maybe."
Pull it together, Appleton, she thought. Get a grip!
"Point taken," she said. "From the vantage point of just over five feet, pretty much every guy's a giant. You look tired, too."
Matt ruffled a hand through his hair. "We pulled an all-nighter."
"An all-nighter doing what?" she asked, immediately wishing she hadn't, because the answer might be personal. Her long-dormant libido stirred at the possibilities.
"Come this way and I'll show you," he said. "It's not all that exciting."
Cross orgy off the list.
"We just got into bottled beer in addition to kegs and growlers, so we don't have a regular bottling line yet," he said. "That means we have to rent a portable line every couple of months until I think sales justify the expense of a permanent one. It will take another addition or a move of the whole facility to do it, so for now, we make do. And we also do it after hours so that our regular business can cruise on."
Matt ushered her past his office, through a set of glass doors to a room with enormous stainless-steel tanks, and then through another door into a brightly lit storage room with a truck well. The kind of industrial orange, temporary lighting she'd seen sold in building warehouse stores shone up the ramp and into the back of the semi.
"A bottling line on wheels," Matt said.
"Very cool," she said, thankful to have something other than Matt to focus on while she regained her business manners. That done, she turned her attention to the people busy checking her out. About twenty exhausted-looking souls sat at tables someone must have dragged in from the taproom.
"Everyone, this is Kate," Matt announced. "Kate … everyone."
"Hey, Kate," a few of them said. Most just raised a glass of beer in a weary greeting.
Kate fought hard not to gag at the thought of beer as a breakfast staple. She liked the idea of herself as a yogurt-and-fruit girl, but the reality was she was more the cold pizza type. Especially when she was PMSing.
"Kate's coming to work with us as a floater," Matt said to the assembled crew.
That brought on a little more enthusiasm.
"Good, a new victim," a midnight black–haired young woman said.
Kate thought the employee looked too young to work with beer, except for the tattoo of a bare-chested cowboy riding a neon-colored dragon wrapping its way from her wrist up her arm. Either she'd forged her mother's signature for that beauty, or she was at least eighteen.
"Does this mean that Hobart and I are breaking up?" the young woman asked Matt.
"For this weekend, at least."
She squealed, then ran and hugged her boss.
"It's up to Jerry if Kate stays there, Amber," Matt said, gently unwinding her and taking a step back. "But you worked hard last night, and I know you're sick of Hobart."
Who the heck is Hobart? Kate thought, scanning the crew for a guy who looked remotely like he might have the misfortune to be named Hobart.
Matt turned to Kate. "Let's go to my office. We might as well get the paperwork out of the way. Then you can report to Jerry."
"So he'll be my direct supervisor?" she asked as Matt ushered her back the way they'd come.
He nodded. "He manages food services, which will include you for the time being. He's the guy you met out front during our unscheduled job interview yesterday afternoon."
"Oops. I sort of bulldozed right past him. I probably didn't make the best first impression."
"Jerry can be pretty forgiving, and you'll like the rest of the crew, too. About half of the people you saw back in the storage room work for me, and the rest are temps who come in for the bottling. We finished up over two hundred cases just a little while ago. Most of the other employees, except the summer staff, you'll meet today."
Matt opened his office door. "Come on in. It shouldn't take long to get this squared away, then we'll get you a uniform."
Kate glanced around, taking in the framed photos on the cubicle-style walls, which didn't quite make it all the way to the ceiling.
"My family, mostly," Matt said. He waved one hand toward another shot of a pack of helmeted and uniformed men bearing sticks. "And my hockey team."
She smiled. "That, I'd figured out."
Kate pulled her driver's license and social security card from her wallet and handed them to Matt. "You need these, right?"
He settled in behind his desk. From its front, she guessed it was a vintage oak piece that had been left to molder in the closed-down depot. Its top looked as though a file cabinet had disgorged itself onto it. Working in a measure of chaos definitely didn't throw this guy.
Kate sat and watched as Matt studied her license.
"Turn it over," she said, knowing exactly what he was thinking. "I'm divorced. My name is changed back to Appleton on the back."
He glanced up at her. "Divorced? Sorry."
"Don't be," she said. "It was for the best."
Except for that messy little glitch whereby both she and the ex, Richard, had lost their savings. The McMansion he'd so desperately wanted had turned out to be worth less than a soggy chicken patty when they'd gone to sell it. Even tougher on Kate had been handing over their poodle, Stella, to the ex because he'd ended up in a place more suitable for dog ownership and the court had awarded him guardianship. Kate had fought hard to keep Stella, but the truth was, Richard had a more expensive lawyer, and she lost. She couldn't bear to think of Stella too much these days.
Matt pulled a form from one of the stacks of folders covering his desk. "Yeah, well, from what I've heard from friends, it had to be a pain to go through."
"Well, it's survivable, but let's just say I'm convinced that if you look in the mirror and say Richard Slate three times, he'll magically appear and kill you with annoying small talk. Although that wasn't what ended the marriage. I trusted him completely, and he cheated on me. Even after I caught him, the weasel denied the whole thing. You know what he said after I told him I wanted to leave? Nothing. He just shrugged his shoulders and went back to his sudoku puzzle."
"So your married name was Kate Slate."
Kate winced. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. How about you? Ever married? Dating anyone?"
He glanced up. "Why? Interested?"
"Not a chance. I've got enough complications to handle without dealing with men."
"What kind of complications?"
Kate pushed her hair back. "Well, for starters, my parents have given me four months to turn our broken-down lake house into a B&B, or else they're going to turn it over to the jerk who bought the mortgage. I have a $10-per-hour job and $15,000 worth of repairs. I'm going to be a homeless dishwasher if I can't make this work."
Matt admired an entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it was nourished by an impractical dream. Everybody had rolled their eyes when he announced he was going to build a brewery.
"I know you've got the stuff," he said. "And the lake is a great place for a bed-and-breakfast. Just put one foot in front of the other."
Easy for him to say.
* * *
"KNOCK, KNOCK," a guy said from behind Kate.
Matt looked over and gestured him in.
"This is Jerry," he told Kate. "But then, you've already met."
"In passing." She gave Jerry an apologetic smile.
Jerry looked tired and overworked, though he was a good-looking guy. He was probably somewhere in his midthirties, and of medium height, with dark brown hair and a goatee. But at the moment, even that goatee was slumping, and his brown eyes looked worried.
"She practically knocked me to the ground," Jerry said. "It was sort of embarrassing."
For both of them. Kate didn't believe in flattening guys, except when strictly necessary. And even though Jerry-as-a-victim had been unavoidable in her quest to get to the big boss, she could still feel the Appleton Curse of a neon blush rising. When she'd been little and playing Go Fish with her mom on The Nutshell's back porch, the blush had been the tip-off to a fast move on her part. And now it only grew brighter under Matt's steady gaze.
He smiled at her. "Kate, why don't you wait for Jerry out in the taproom? He and I have a couple of things to cover."
Kate recognized a gift when handed one. She said her thank-yous, saved her fence-mending with Jerry for later, and beat a hasty retreat.
* * *
SO KATE Appleton blushed. Matt liked that about her. There was something fascinating about being bold enough to run over a guy and yet a day later, be contrite enough to blush.
"She's presentable and all that, but kind of pushy, don't you think?" Jerry asked Matt as soon as Kate had cleared the room.
"I think she's going to do great. And you're twice her size and her supervisor. If she can pull one over on you again, you deserve it."
Jerry looked a little brighter at that thought. Considering the matchup, Matt wasn't one hundred percent sure he should look so happy.
"So Amber says you want Kate with Hobart this weekend."
"Yeah. Amber could use a break, but after that, you can move Kate around as needed."
Jerry stroked his goatee. "Huh. Anyplace."
Matt began recalculating the odds on that particular matchup. Kate might have Jerry in the gutsiness department, but Jerry was nothing if not a dogged and steady guy. And he could also be a little sneaky, in a good-natured sort of way.
"So go to it," Matt said.
After Jerry took off, Matt looked at his weekend schedule and sighed. He had just enough time to head home, shower, and change before he had to drive an hour north to Traverse City for the weekend. He was getting tired of being on the road all the time, even if it did mean his business was growing in a tough economy. Much as he was proud to keep so many people employed year-round, he wanted his life back. He wanted some romance in his life, and maybe even love. He had a good feeling about Kate. She was going to help him find his saboteur, and maybe a lot more.
LOVE IN A NUTSHELL. Copyright 2011 by Janet Evanovich & Dorien Kelly.