“Holly, did you see the hottie at your ten o’clock?” Hope asked as she haphazardly tossed a box of half-gallon cider containers into the exposition hall.
I glanced up for less than half a second before my attention returned to table placement. “Yeah, he’s okay.” Normally, I took the time to look at a hot guy, but Oceanview Orchards had too much at stake for me to divert my attention.
My sister Hope was the youngest of five. As my only sister, I brought her along, but she didn’t fully understand the importance of winning today’s event. The entire future of Oceanview Orchards rested on our backs, and she was ogling a hot dude.
“You didn’t even look,” she said, leaning up against the carton of ciders and pushing them off to the side. It resembled the leaning tower of cider.
I placed my palm hard against the other side and pushed back, forcing her to stand up straight. She motioned toward the hot guy with her chin and a deep sigh, so I did the obligatory sister glance.
In the middle of a flock of women, making it easy to determine exactly who she was staring at, stood the hottest man I’d ever seen. He was too far away to see the color of his eyes, but he highlighted his perfect jawline when he tipped his head back and laughed and then used his left hand to push back a few strands of his slightly shaggy brown hair behind his ear. Classic Hollywood move.
Focus, Holly. I don’t have time to be infatuated with someone.
We had a family business to save. Well, maybe not save, but bolster.
“See, isn’t he gorgeous?” Hope started again, this time sounding dreamy.
I nodded. If appeasing her got her back to work, I’d do what needed to be done. “Okay, he’s cute. Are you happy?”
She grinned as only a younger sister could. “Yes.”
I rolled my eyes but did so with my back turned so she didn’t see. “Can you please run to the van and get me two more tablecloths?”
One of the last people to stop at our refreshment stand dumped half a glass on my cloth. I’d wiped up the spill, but it left a sticky residue. We didn’t have time for sticky. My nerves rolled with the anxiety getting me through this competition.
With so much riding on this event, I didn’t have time for any mess-ups.
“Fine, but you’re so bossy,” Hope said and then swept her way toward the rear exit.
“Because I am the boss,” I yelled at her retreating backside.
Something smelled. Sticky. That was never good.
I was already a nervous wreck and worried my blood pressure was going through the roof. With my nose in the air, I searched for the new culprit. No one was going to ruin this day for me.
“No, you don’t, asshole,” I whispered when I located the traitor.
Cider dribbled through a half-gallon container that looked like the plastic had cracked open at the bottom. Probably the non-careful way my family unloaded the supplies. The spill arched toward the front of my booth and tipped over the side. I needed to get a handle on the situation before the catastrophe worsened.
Aware that with every wasted second more cider leaked onto the floor, I scanned the area, searching for a large trash can. I didn’t pack one because I didn’t want our booth looking trashy. It made sense at the time! Don’t judge.
The closest one, a large fifty-gallon black container, sat out in the hallway to my side. Without giving it another thought, I sped walked with the compromised container in that direction, dribbling cider the entire way.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no.” On the one day I needed everything to be perfect, one of our containers sprung a leak. I planned to blame a brother. I didn’t know which one yet, but this was somehow their fault. With three of them to choose from, I’d easily pin it on Holston, Haden, or Hale.
The cider leaked from the small crack faster, the divide widening, and my dribbles went from a drop with every step to a thin line. I picked up my pace and, as soon as possible, chucked the cider into the trash bin, hoping no one witnessed my freakout or questioned the line of sticky liquid on the carpet.
The front of my black pants were wet with cider. Little splotches of liquid, no doubt picked up during my Olympic speed walk to the trashcan, deepened the color. My hands were sticky and smelled like cider.
I took a moment by the trashcan to get my wits about me so I didn’t fall to the floor and scream. Or cry. I didn’t have time for an epic meltdown.
It was just one bad container of cider. It didn’t mean we threw away the entire competition.
Everything would be fine.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I was the oldest Halliday sister in a family of cider growers. I only needed a moment to gather my shit and then I’d go back out there and kick ass. My family needed me to win this event so we’d qualify to be in Maine’s Annual Apple Cider Taste-Off State Finals and be named the number one cider farm destination in Maine.
Plus, I had double motivation because not only would I show the entire state how outstanding my family was, but I planned to buy myself a new pair of boots. L.L. Bean released their new limited-edition color, and I absolutely needed them in my collection.
I had a lot riding on the day.
A big wet slobbery tongue licked the back of my hand, and rather than wrenching it away, I stood there motionlessly with horror written across my face. The shock stole any movement from me as a big golden retriever licked my middle finger coming back for seconds.
“Bacon! No. Come here,” said a handsome-sounding voice. Yes, a voice can sound handsome. Look it up.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the mood for handsome. At any other point in my life, I would have acknowledged his superior vocal cords, but that day, my brain was processing too much to make the connection. It took me longer.
Only when that same brown head of hair I’d been admiring with Holly came into my view did I recognize him as… hot guy. He pulled on his dog’s collar, jerking him back to his side.
“I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Can I do anything for you?” he asked, handing me a napkin with the bright red logo of our biggest competitor on the front. Causebay Family Farms.
I wiped the cider and dog slobber all over the top of that damn napkin and then tossed it in the trash next to the disfigured cider container—exactly where everything from the Causebay family belonged.
“No, thanks. I just needed a minute.”
A bunch of things rushed up to me at once. I asked the most pressing question. “You named your dog Bacon?”
He laughed, but not a genuine laugh more of a “oh no, someone has asked me about my dog’s ridiculous name again.”
“He really liked Bacon when I got him, and it was the only thing that seem to stick.”
My brother had a dog name Misfit, so I supposed I shouldn’t give someone too much crap for what they named their furry friend.
“We’ll thank you for the napkin and the tongue wash,” I said, giving his dog a quick pat on the top of his head. He chose that moment to rub his snout against my fingers, and I swear a few golden retriever hairs stuck in the stickiness that would probably never wash away.
One thing you learned early on as an apple farmer—cider was a sticky bitch.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help? You look distraught.”
“No, I have to get back to my table. I’m Holly Halliday,” I said with my hand out to shake his, hopeful the dog didn’t take another pass.
“Will… um Will Davis. Are you here competing today?”
“Yes, from Oceanview Orchards.”
He nodded his head slowly and his hand found mine, the shake between us firm but slow.
“Are you competing?” I asked him when he didn’t give any other information and I didn’t know how to fill the awkward silence. Also, I may have been staring into his deep emerald-green eyes and gotten slightly lost in the moment.
“No, just here to sample the goods today.”
Something about his eyes and the way he smiled held my attention. My fingers were still sticky and my pants were drying incredibly slowly, but I needed to get back to my table in case anyone had a question about our operations at the orchard. I just couldn’t pull myself away from the man.
“Dude, Holly, where do you want this stuff?” Hope asked, wagging the two tablecloths I asked her to grab. They flapped together, creating enough noise to bring me out of my stupor.
“Right,” I said again, but more forcefully. “Excuse me. I need to get back to my thing.”
Hot dude, who I now knew as Will, watched me go. He still held on to the scruff of his dog, who looked like he wanted to follow me and lick the rest of the cider from my fingers.
“I can’t believe you talked to hot dude.” Holly began badgering me before we even made it back to the table. I tried to give her direction on how to swap the cloths out with the least amount of work, but as usual, she had a hard time focusing on the important things. “Did you get his digits?”
My nose crinkled. Did their generation really say digits for phone number? “No. I’m here to work, not pick up guys.”
Something we’d already discussed. I regretted bringing her along already.
After I proved that Oceanview Orchards could battle against the biggest players in the state, I’d buy myself the pair of boots and then worry about finding a man. Life had a defined order. And kicking ass while making a name for myself was top of the list.
I had to prove myself, not only to my three brothers—including my twin—but my entire family, Pelican Bay, and the state of Maine.
I worked to fix a wrinkle, the last remaining one, in my perfectly placed table cover as the last judge of the day chose that moment to stop at my display. How did I know he was a judge?
Because they wore the most ridiculous big ass judge sashes. They looked like Miss America contestants at a pageant. Some judges were more into the sashes than others, and it wasn’t hard to spot a sash lover.
At first, I thought the five judges were joking with the way they walked around the room with their noses in the air. I saw one of them even petting her sash as she talked to a table of contestants. How much power did this regional taste competition have? And how did it go to their heads so quickly?
It’s not like they’d brought in Elon Musk or anything. The local weather man was a judge. I didn’t recognize the judge in front of me from any television or commercial, but he wore his sash proudly.
My hands shook as I reached to grab him a cup and pour cider from one of our non-leaking half gallons.
“Wrong side,” Hope whispered. She’d locked her lips into a smile, causing me to fidget and knock over the stack of cups when I jerked my hand in the right direction. Five cups tumbled over the side and scattered on the floor, causing enough noise for half the room to stare at us.
The judge stopped less than a foot away from my table, scowling at the cups as if they’d personally offended him. The cups didn’t care. They continued to roll around, coming to slow individual stops wherever it suited them. One hit the judge’s shined shoe.
I froze. Indecision clouded my thoughts and made me unable to move. Did I finish pouring his glass or pick up the offensive drink containers?
Hope jetted to the front of the table and kicked the plastic cups underneath the long tablecloth before she backed up with a slight moonwalk, making jazz hands. It was horrible. Tragic.
“Welcome to Oceanview Orchards, judge,” she said like she hadn’t just made a fool of herself. I wish I’d caught it on camera.
It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever witnessed, but it brought me out of my freakout and I quickly poured the judge half a glass of cider and handed it across the table.
“Can I also interest you in an apple cider donut?” I asked, presenting the tower of donuts in the middle of our table. My display lacked jazz fingers, but I still wowed him.
He selected one from the top of the pile and took a bite, his eyes closing for a second in what I hoped was a silent moan.
“Do you make the donuts on site at your orchard?”
My face fell, but only for a moment. “Not at this time,” I answered truthfully. “We have outsourced our production to a local bakery but hope to expand the operation in the near future.”
Slight lie. The bakery had the best cider donuts in all of Maine, and we had no plans to stop purchasing from the owner, but figuring out an explanation of why it never happened was future Holly’s problem.
He nodded twice, but his lips were no longer tipped into a smile. “I like to see orchards produce their own products.”
I didn’t know why he thought himself the resident donut production expert, but he was the man with the sash, so I smiled and gave him a nod. When dealing with men wearing sashes, it was best to pretend like I gave a shit about their opinions.
“We’re hoping to have it operational by next year,” I lied through my teeth. Now it was not-so-future Holly’s problem.
When I got a moment, I’d sit and make a brief note for my brother about his upcoming business plans.
The judge finished his first donut and then took a second while looking over my informational display board. I’d pasted pictures of the farm and a few of our local events over the years. Hope glued a picture of an ambulance picking up Drake and the woman who shot him at our Easter event, but thankfully I noticed the indiscretion as I set up the display and taped over the offending picture with one of our branded coasters.
It wasn’t my fault Oceanview Orchards was in Pelican Bay and therefore… Well, usually it meant bullets and bloodshed. Nobody here needed to know the inner workings of our town, and no one needed to know the shit that went on at the orchard. That was a Pelican Bay secret.
After I won this qualifying competition, the big one in a few days, bought my boots, told my older brother Haden about the bakery operation he needed to open, and then punched my twin brother in the arm just for fun, I was definitely getting revenge against Hope for the ambulance photo.
It was a busy few days before Christmas.
The judge reached for a third donut and I wanted to make a comment about how he must not find them too unappealing if he kept eating them like they were candies, but Hope stepped on my toe as if she sensed what my mind was brewing.
I shot her a look, threatening retribution for the photo and foot-stomping later.
“How many producing trees is your orchard maintaining?” the judge asked in between nibbles, bits of cinnamon falling from his mouth as he spoke. Hopefully, he wasn’t a food critic with those chewing patterns.
I started to answer, but the overhead microphone cackled to life. “Judges, please meet in front of the stage for final calculations. We will determine a winner at 4:30,” the disembodied voice finished.
The Judge lifted his hand in a goodbye wave, and I nodded at him before flicking my wrist and checking the time on my watch.
Only ten minutes until three men and two women wearing donut crumb sprinkled judge sashes determined the fate of my life and family orchard.