One and Only
by Amy Knupp
Drummer Micah Sullivan lost his music and his dreams when his wife died unexpectedly. In the emotional aftermath, he quit his successful country band and pushed away his family and friends. Three years later, he’s opened a music shop on Hale Street in Nashville and tells himself he’s content trying to make it a hit. What he failed to consider is that success requires connections—including the very ones he turned his back on.
Sloan McGuire is up for a new challenge…never realizing it might lead to heartbreak. When she takes a job as entertainment manager at a bar not known for its music, she doesn’t bargain for running into Micah, whose late wife was her best friend. She can tell within minutes that he’s still grieving. Out of love for her friend, she attempts to reconnect with the reclusive drummer. Falling for him isn’t in the plans, though—not only because he was married to her friend but because she’s been second-best before, and she never wants to play that role again.
As Micah starts finding his rhythm, life throws him a different beat. But with a little improvisation and a lot of courage, he just might tap into the one and only connection he needs.
Micah Sullivan would cop to being good at one thing and one thing only — playing the drums.
The long list of things he wasn’t so good at these days included people, parties, appearances, celebrations, and other upbeat events.
Something he wasn’t, however, was stupid.
If he’d learned nothing else in the ten months since he’d opened Sticks and Picks, he knew it was far wiser to make an appearance at any Hale Street social event — tonight’s being the Halloween party at Clayborne’s on the Corner — than to try to skip out. Short-term discomfort was preferable to an inquisition from the bakery girls, otherwise known as the social dictators of Hale Street. Well-meaning and easy-to-look-at dictators, sure, but for him, showing up for a few minutes was easier than having one of the three overzealous owners of Sugar Babies drop in the next day to make sure everything was okay.READ MORE
Besides, it was time to suck it up and approach bakery girl Kennedy Lowell for some marketing help for his drum and guitar store. Add to the list two other things he evidently sucked at, running a business and asking for help. But he absolutely had to make Sticks and Picks a success — it was all he had left.
Micah had been playing drums ever since closing his store for the day, but now he reluctantly put his sticks on the shelf next to his favorite drum set, the one that held a spot of prominence in the soundproofed office in the back of his soundproofed store. He walked around the set to the duffle bag on his desk chair and dug through it until he found the black T-shirt he’d specifically put in for tonight, having known the likelihood of him driving home before the party was zero. Or, more accurately, while driving home wouldn’t be an issue, the odds of him getting back into his Toyota FJ Cruiser and returning to Hale Street for the party were zero.
He pulled the shirt he was wearing up over his head, then slid the clean one on. Black T-shirt, black cargo pants, black Globe tennis shoes. As if he were going to a funeral. Strangely appropriate.
He walked into the adjacent storage room and checked to make sure the back door was locked, then made his way out toward the front of the store. In no hurry whatsoever, he took in, as he still often did, everything he’d worked hard to get just so — the four practice rooms he planned to rent out nestled next to the office, the floor-to-ceiling shelves of snares, toms, and cymbals that stretched out along one long wall of the retail area, the full sets in the middle of the room that beckoned to customers to try them out, and the two-story entryway with the dramatic display of guitars and drums that Hayden Henry from Henry Interiors across the street had helped him create. All in all, it looked impressive. Now if he could just get the books to look the same.
The brisk Tennessee evening air hit Micah as he exited and locked up, making him think, briefly, where his jacket might be. He’d be fine tonight, but it was getting to be time to dig out something a little warmer than a T-shirt.
Though most of the businesses along Hale Street were closed for the night, cars were parallel parked up and down both sides of the street. The old-fashioned streetlamps shed dim, warm light over the brick sidewalks, and his feet rustled through fallen leaves that had started to gather along the building facades. The chill in the air sent a shiver through him that had less to do with the temperature and more to do with the season when everything died.
The bar was two doors down from his store, and he could hear the muffled din of a large crowd even before he passed Walk On By Boots, their neighbor in between. When he reached the Hale Street side door of Clayborne’s, he paused, his hand on the gold handle, and braced himself to deal with shit tons of happy people, reminded himself once again this was the easier of two options, and then opened the door, letting a wave of raucous party noise wash over him.
As his eyes adjusted to the light — not bright, by any means, more of a nighttime-bar, I-wanna-see-you-but-not-too-well type of light — he took in the standing-room-only crowd of costumed partiers and made a beeline for the bar that stretched along the opposite wall. It took some time, as there was no obvious path, and several people greeted him by name. He replied to each one, nodded at a couple familiar faces, and did his best to plaster a smile on his face until he reached the counter and slid into a spot in front of one of the bartenders.
“What’s up, man?” Pierce, the bartender, greeted him as he mixed a cocktail on the work area behind the bar. As he took in Micah’s shirt, he grinned and shook his head. “That’s pushing it. Want the usual?”
“When you get a chance. That’s a decent costume but predictable.”
Pierce was a baseball-aholic and lived and died for the Kansas City Royals. Fittingly, he’d decked himself out in a Royals jersey and cap, his shaggy dark hair winging up around the edges, and painted black lines on his cheeks. “Bought a new Eric Hosmer jersey just for the occasion.”
“That’s dedication,” Micah said, then glanced in the mirror behind the bar at the reflection of hordes of people. “Place is packed.”
“They started early tonight,” Pierce said as he put the lid on a shaker and shook the hell out of it. As he poured that drink into a glass, he grabbed another glass with his other hand and filled it with ice. He set the first drink to the side with two others, which Asia, one of the assistant managers who was apparently helping serve tonight, slid onto her tray to deliver. “There you go, Buffy,” Pierce said to her, and it dawned on Micah that her preppy short skirt and sweater costume must’ve been that of the vampire slayer.
By the time he looked back at Pierce, the bartender was handing over his rum and Coke.
“Thanks, man,” Micah said as he slipped him some cash. “Know where your boss is?”
“Hunter’s across the way,” he said, nodding his head toward the tables midway between the side and front doors. “Along with the usual suspects.”
Micah raised his glass in acknowledgment, did a one-eighty, and made his way through the crowd, spotting the long, auburn hair of Kennedy next to Hunter Clayborne, the bar owner.
“Micah, you made it.” Violet Calloway, the brunette bakery girl, sidled up next to him and squeezed his forearm warmly, and he found himself swallowed into the large group that crowded around the table, some on stools and others standing.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he lied.
“I call bullshit on that,” Kennedy said, grinning as she elbowed him.
“Micah Sullivan,” Ivy Gibson, the blond bakery girl, chided from the other side of the table. “Tell me I’m not reading your shirt right.”
Kennedy, who was to his immediate left and wearing a bright red shirt with a Coke logo, apparently to go with her boyfriend Hunter’s Jack Daniels shirt, turned her attention to Micah’s T-shirt and read out loud, “‘This is my costume.’ That, my friend, is brilliant.”
“That,” Ivy said, “is a cop-out.” She herself was dressed in black, with a tight, off-the-shoulders top and her blond hair done up in curls. Next to her stood hotelier Burke Wentworth, in a black leather jacket and white tee, fifties-style, and looking like he missed his usual three-piece suit. The couple from Grease, Micah guessed.
“Be easy on Micah,” Kennedy said. “He gets points for effort.”
“I’ll admit, not as inspired as your Jack and Coke theme,” Micah said, raising his glass to Hunter for a toast. He glanced around at the group and took in the other costumes. Violet and her guy, Nick, were dressed as pirates, and Hudson Bennett, the lawyer with the office next door to the bakery, had gone all out as a bright yellow chicken. Dude was a nice guy and a competent lawyer from what Micah had seen, but he didn’t know where to draw the line on party wear, it appeared. Next to Hudson was Violet’s sister, Daisy, in a simple black cat disguise. As Hudson leaned close to her and said something private, Micah wondered if there was something going on between the two of them.
Micah did his best to fade into the background as discussion at the table turned to the costume contest, the band who’d been on the Clayborne’s stage the night before, and the newest business on the block, Hayden’s furnishings and interior design shop. When he figured he’d been there “being social” — if nodding from time to time and laughing when appropriate could be considered being social — for an acceptable amount of time, he waited for the best opportunity to catch Kennedy’s attention and talk to her in private, or as private as one could manage in a bar with a couple hundred other people.
He got his chance after Hudson told a cheesy joke, as everyone around the table groaned. Kennedy made eye contact, and Micah leaned close to her ear so he didn’t have to yell.
“Sometime I’d like to talk to you about marketing. Are you still consulting?”
“I am. Want to walk to the bar with me and tell me what you’ve got in mind while we wait for drinks?”
He nodded and gestured for her to go ahead of him. Talking on the way was impossible, but as they waited their turn to get drinks, she asked, “Do you have a special promotion in mind, some kind of event you want help with? Or is it just day-to-day business you want to build?”
Special promotion? God help him. “Day-to-day, I guess,” Micah said, wishing he knew this business stuff better, but when he’d been in the band, all he’d had to do was play. The marketing end had always been handled by the record company and his manager. “I know music and drums and guitars as well as anybody, but…” He shook his head. “The thought of a promotion makes my blood go cold. And the holidays are just about here… I hadn’t thought of doing anything special, but retailers do that, don’t they?”
“Retailers do that,” Kennedy said, and she managed to say it without sounding like he was a moron, so points for her. “Let’s get together this week. Name a time and day.”
They settled on Thursday lunch as Pierce delivered their drinks, and Micah realized his error in ordering another one — he’d either have to stay longer or abandon good liquor. He didn’t usually allow himself a second drink anymore, but he hated to let top-shelf rum go to waste.
As they turned back toward the table, Micah excused himself, telling Kennedy he saw someone he needed to talk to near the stairs, and headed in that direction. It was another non-truth, and he wondered when he’d gotten so comfortable with making shit up and speaking it as fact. No, he really didn’t wonder. He knew exactly when. Three years, two months, and six days ago, to be exact.
He found a good out-of-the-way spot against the back wall, near the stairs, to stand and observe while he downed a little more of his drink. Sierra, Kennedy’s brunette sister who lived at the end of Hale Street, Hayden, and two women he didn’t know stood in a cluster near the bar, generating plenty of male attention. He couldn’t tell what Sierra’s costume was from here, but she was showing a lot of skin. Hayden appeared to be a bandit of some kind, with a stocking cap and ski mask — the only reason he recognized her was because the two women were always together.
As his gaze continued to rove, he skimmed over a woman near the back hallway, about twenty feet from him. He paused with his glass halfway to his mouth and did a double take. Swore to himself.
She was dressed in some kind of woman warrior costume, with body “armor,” crosses, and a sword, but even so, there was no mistaking the raven-haired woman.
Nostalgia and affection engulfed him, blindsided him, had him leaning harder on the wall, as if a three-hundred-pound linebacker had run into him. He’d clicked with his wife’s best friend due to their shared love of the country music scene. They’d frequently run into each other on Broadway at bars — her for her job in entertainment booking and him because of his side gig, the country band that had started out as a long shot and had begun morphing into more, such that it had been crucial to get out and network.
His wife, Deanna, having been a grade-school teacher, had insisted on staying home most evenings, needing as much sleep as she could get to face her “sweet little monsters” each day — which Micah got completely, as he would’ve needed more than sleep to wrangle first graders for seven hours a stretch — so she’d been relieved that he and Sloan had bonded. Less guilt for her, she’d said.
His affection for Sloan had been unspoken and harmless, until it’d hit him one night just how much he looked forward to seeing her and how disappointed he was to find out she was at home with the flu. He’d reined himself in then — no way would he ever betray Deanna — and had made a point of seeking her out less, getting back to his goal of making useful connections in country music. His attraction had ended up being a nonissue, or so he’d told himself … until Deanna’s death. Then Sloan became, in his mind, just one more way he’d been a not-good-enough husband for a woman who’d deserved so much more.
It’d been a long time since he’d seen Sloan McGuire. Three years, two months, and two days, as a matter of fact. The day of Deanna’s funeral.
He did his best to stop staring at her, slid back into the shadows against the wall, and tried to be as unnoticeable as possible.COLLAPSE