It Started with a Snap by Piper James
Ever have one of those days when you wish you could just go back to bed and sleep through it? Yeah, that had been every single day for me for the last few months. But no, I had to plaster on a smile and power through, pretending like everything was hunky-fucking-dory.
“Did you find everything you were looking for?”
Mrs. Martinez nodded with a smile, placing a pair of western jeans and two plaid button downs with pearl buttons on the counter. I tried not to stare at the drop of sweat carving a slow path down her temple. My face was frozen with a congenial expression despite the fact that her face was flushed and it was obvious she was uncomfortable.
Please don’t mention the temperature in here. Please don’t mention—
“It’s a little warm in here, today,” she said, using her hand to fan her face. “Air conditioning having trouble?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, not meeting her eyes as I rang up her purchase. “It should be fixed by next week.”
“Oh, that’s good. It’s supposed to shoot up over a hundred on Monday and stay there for several days. It would be just awful to be stuck in here with no a/c during that.”
Great. I’d been purposefully avoiding looking at the weather forecast for just that reason. I didn’t want to know. It was September in Texas. Chances were good that it was going to be hell, and I was living under the belief that ignorance was bliss.
Because the air conditioning was not going to be fixed next week. I’d been telling customers that all summer. Hell, I told everyone last winter the same thing about the furnace. The whole HVAC system had been on the fritz for nearly a year, starting with the thermostat freezing at eighty-five degrees and keeping the whole place that warm for weeks until I found someone who would fix it for cheap.
I ran Mrs. Martinez’s credit card, wished her a lovely day, and then slumped into the chair behind the counter with a sigh as soon as the bells over the door signaled her departure.
I felt like a fucking failure.
Glowing Embers was my baby. I’d opened the western boutique after deciding college just wasn’t for me. My father had passed away from a sudden heart attack when I was nineteen, and after coming home for the funeral, I realized how much I hated being away. I dropped out of college and used most of the inheritance he’d left me to buy the building and open this place, and it was an immediate success.
For a good eight years, the place had prospered, supporting the carefree lifestyle I’d always wanted. I owned the old building, which included a small loft-style apartment upstairs. So I had no mortgage to budget for. No rent to pay. Hell, I bought the smallest, cheapest pickup truck I could find so I wouldn’t have a car payment, either.
And after all these years, I had a few employees I trusted implicitly, so I didn’t even have to work that much. Life was fucking grand. Staying out late, drinking and having fun until the wee hours of the morning. Sleeping until I was ready to wake up. Checking the books, making sure everything was in order. Then do it all again.
Then sometime last year, things started to fall apart. Literally.
Shortly after the thermostat broke, a water pipe busted in my apartment upstairs, causing damage to the store’s ceiling. Water and debris from the drywall ruined an entire rack of expensive leather purses. The public toilet in the back clogged up so bad, the plunger was useless, leaving my customers and employees with no option but to leave the store if they had to go. A hinge on one of the two dressing room doors broke off, making it inaccessible.
And now the air conditioner is broken and it feels like the pits of hell in here. Kill me now.
Regret washed over me the way it always did when these thoughts ran through my head. It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if I hadn’t stupidly let the insurance policy run out. Having insurance wasn’t required by Texas law, and after paying that shit for years and never using it, I’d stupidly decided it was a waste of money and dropped it.
And while I made enough money to live comfortably, I wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. I couldn’t afford to replace everything that broke. So I hired a kid who was working as an apprentice for his father’s repair business to come put a bandage on the issue every time something went wrong. He was coming out to check the air conditioning unit in a few days. I just had to make it until then without melting. Or losing all my customers.
To put the cherry on top of the sundae, it was getting harder and harder to hide my problems from my friends. I’d tried to keep how bad things had gotten from them, but I could tell they’d noticed the stress that was weighing me down. I wasn’t as carefree as I used to be. I didn’t smile as much. And it was getting more and more difficult to come up with excuses for why I had to leave suddenly or skip our girls’ nights, altogether. It had been happening more and more, lately, and I always played it off as an employee calling in sick instead of the truth. A broken floorboard that made a customer trip and fall—thankfully, she was okay and didn’t sue me—a short in the electric wiring that caused all the light fixtures to go out, or the deadbolt on the front entrance jamming so the store couldn’t be locked up for the night.
Annabelle, Sage, and Dakota had a running joke that my employees hated me, and that’s why they kept calling in “sick.” I laughed and flipped them off, playing along with their teasing, but on the inside, I was dying. No one was calling in sick. My employees loved the boutique as much as I did.
It was just falling apart, and I couldn’t bring myself to admit to anyone, especially my best friends, that it was failing. That I was failing.
All three of them would kick me in the crotch if they knew I was hiding this from them. They’d insist on helping me out, and I was in such dire straits, I didn’t know if I’d be able to say no.
Belle was married to Ryder Perry, who owned Perry Brothers Construction with his three siblings, Chase, Noah, and Ethan. Sage and Chase were together, raising his son, Daniel, in the ranch home she’d inherited. Noah and Dakota moved in together as roommates earlier this year, but that quickly evolved into something romantic. Those two were so sweet and in love, it made my teeth ache to see them together.
Ethan and I were the last single ones in the group, and the girls teased me constantly about hooking up with him and completing the circle. But that was never going to fucking happen. Ethan Perry was a holier-than-thou, patronizing douche canoe who thought his own shit didn’t stink. Fuck him. Besides, I loved being single and had no intentions of changing that any time soon.
With all of these handy as fuck men in my inner circle, you’d think this building would be in tip-top shape. And it would be, if I’d just asked.
But pride was a powerful beast.
I’d always been vocal about how awesome my life was. About how happy I was, not being stuck in a full-time job. Glowing Embers had always been a labor of love, a joy, and now? It was just laborious.
I’d have to admit to them I’d failed, and I didn’t like the taste of crow.
So, I just kept trudging along, doing what I could to stay afloat while pretending like everything was just perfect with my friends. It was exhausting.
My phone chimed, and I leaned forward in my chair to pull it from my back pocket. Dakota had sent a text to the group chat I had going with the girls. My mood lifted as I read the words and stared at the attached picture.
Dakota: I’m engaged! *pic sent*
It was a snapshot of her hand with a gorgeous, sparkly diamond on her ring finger. My eyes stung as I stared at it. Noah did good, and I couldn’t be happier for them both. They were perfect together.
Belle: Oh, my God! That is beautiful, D. Congratulations! I can’t wait to hear all the details!
Sage: Gorgeous!! Let’s celebrate!
Dakota: Girls’ night at The Watering Hole tonight?
Belle: I’m in. I’ll tell Ryder he’s on baby duty.
Sage: I’m in, too. Eight o’clock?
My thumbs flew over the screen as I typed my own response, telling myself a girls’ night out was a good thing. Besides, the focus would be on Dakota, not me. No one would even notice if I was a little down, which I was determined not to be. It was Dakota’s night, and I would pull up my fucking bootstraps and be there for her.
Me: Congrats, Dakota! I can’t wait to see that rock in person. See you all tonight!
Setting my phone on the counter in front of me, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Time to suck it up and celebrate with my friends.