Authors: Ava Miles
Tags: #romance, #contemporary, #small town, #New Adult, #foodie romance
“Hey!” He stuffed his hands in his jeans, drawing her gaze.
“Hey, back,” she answered, trying not to sigh at his bulge like some groupie. She was a Bulge Watcher. Her mother would be so proud.
“Hey, Brian.” Meredith stood and gave him a quick hug.
“You hear where the fire was?”
Jill bit her lip. “Nope.”
“They have a lot of false alarms,” Meredith said. “Cats in trees. Morons who—”
“I’m sure he’s not interested in fire statistics, Mere.”
His mouth curved, unfurling a ribbon of lust in her abdomen.
“Jill and I were just talking about you, Brian. You’ve never told us why you left New York. The city’s a hot food scene. You must miss it.”
The muscles around his mouth tightened. Even though Jill wanted to know—was dying to know, really—it was mean of her sister to ambush him.
“Give him a break, Mere. Guys don’t blab their life stories.”
Or they only do to the women in their lives. Brian definitely had a story. Like
I met someone in New York, but it didn’t work out or I saw a dead homeless man in an alley during winter, and it changed me.
Meredith glared at her. “Reporter’s prerogative. Okay, I’ve gotta get back to work. See about that fire.” She gave Jill a kiss and sailed out.
Without Meredith there to take off the heat, Jill felt her bones dissolve into tissue paper. Sliding out of her chair would be ridiculous, but she suddenly understood the reason for those Victorian reclining couches.
Brian drawled. He turned those blue eyes away for a moment, allowing her to take a deep breath. “Business is good.”
When he turned back, the hummingbird pace of her heart increased again. “Yes. Ah, do you want me to make you your favorite?”
Jill realized she’d do pretty much anything for this man. Hike the Continental Divide in the snow. Darn holes in socks. Cripes, she needed to get a clue. Or a life.
“No…I thought I’d drop by and see if you wanted to come to dinner tonight. I’ll cook.”
Her head darted back. They’d been spending time together over the past few months, but cooking…from scratch. This was new.
“Like a real date?” she asked. Dammit, maybe the whole fire truck ride had infused her with life-and-death energy, but she wanted to be clear.
“Ah, sure. If you want to call it that.” He jiggled change in his pocket, ducking his head, hitching his shoulder up like he did when he was nervous. “I want to cook for you.”
He did? Her heart warmed like she was holding a puppy. “That’d be awesome! I’d love that. I mean…” Overdone, she realized. “Great, simply great.” Shut up, Jill.
“Why don’t you pop by at seven?”
“Can I bring something?”
And the way he said it made her knees quiver, actually quiver.
“Great!” she breathed out and ground her teeth. Maybe she should study the dictionary so she could learn to form cohesive sentences.
“Okay.” He edged back. Then, he rushed forward to kiss her cheek. “See ya then.” He turned, bumped into the table, and cruised out, not looking back.
Jill righted the paper cup he’d knocked over, fighting the urge to touch her cheek. The patrons’ muffled chuckles only made her lovesick grin grow wider.
She wasn’t the only one off her rocker. Brian was making a real move.
It was about damn time.
rian zoomed toward his car. Man, what had happened to his mojo?
Jill was putting him on edge. He felt like a high school teenager around her again. The boy had wanted her. The man craved her.
But knowing her, it would be the deep end or nothing.
Brian needed to find himself again. He didn’t want to rush into things with Jill before he knew if they could find a balance between their friendship and the hot-as-a-kitchen-blow-torch attraction they felt for each other. He was terrified of screwing things up with her. Losing her eight years ago had been like losing a part of himself. It would be unconscionable for it to happen again.
He yanked on the wool scarf around his neck. Managed to smile at the people he passed on the sidewalk. Inside, his mind was a mess, like one of those splatter paintings in Jill’s coffee shop. How much longer could he keep this up? How much longer could he spend time with Jill without telling her his reasons for returning to town? If she could learn to fully trust him, maybe she’d understand. But how could she when even he didn’t?
Cooking for her had seemed like a nice gesture to kick their relationship to the next level. Hell, he was a chef and the only person he’d cooked for since returning to town was his buddy Pete, also Jemma’s ex, and the current subject of Jill’s hatred.
He changed course and headed to the Food Pantry for ingredients. When he entered the produce aisle, there were seven women selecting everything from bananas to onions. The gossipy old guard hadn’t changed their ways. Their conversations swirled around him.
“Did you see Kerry Jenkins sitting next to Mitch Miller at the basketball game the other night? People are starting to talk. Something’s brewing there.”
Another trio talked about the mystery car in their neighbor’s driveway that morning. “You know what that means,” a woman wearing a severe ponytail whispered, her voice projecting loudly.
His gut tightened. Some things about Dare made him happy—the close-knit community, the outdoors, the familiarity. Then there was this.
New York had its pros and cons, too, but there he’d had the ability to do what he wanted, when he wanted. The problem was he had taken things too far.
There were always consequences, no matter where you lived.
The small organic produce shelf called to him. It was a positive addition, probably added to cater to the Californians who’d moved into town. He picked up an avocado and looked at the mottled emerald color.
“My goodness, Brian McConnell.”
His hand automatically clenched at the sound of the shrill voice.
Vivian Thomilson still wore all black and had a chin hair that was about two inches long. “It almost made me do a double take, seeing you selecting produce.”
He picked up on the censure in her comment. God, he’d hoped the old talk about him cooking had gone away.
Brian made his lips form a smile. “Well, I don’t have a nice woman like you to buy what I need for me, Mrs. Thomilson.”
She laughed in a high, staccato tone, her cameo clasp earrings dancing dangerously on her sagging lobes. “Well, I used to tell your mother she was so lucky you turned out to be a chef. We were worried you were gay when you started baking those quiches in high school.”
The dig stung. Being a teenage boy in Dare who liked to bake and plate dishes in artistic ways, he’d been subjected to name calling and then some. Apron Boy. Nancy. He hadn’t forgotten.
His parents had been ashamed of his interest in French food, especially given the way it had set off the town rumor mill. His mother had tried to prevent him from cooking by taking them out to eat all the time and not buying groceries. His father, who thought
men had no place in the kitchen, had grounded him for showing an interest. When that had failed, his father’s campaign had escalated. He’d berated Brian for not being a man, calling him horrible names, even threatening to beat it out of him.
Jill’s mom had saved his dream from dying by letting him cook at the Hales’ house. Growing up, he had spent more time there than at his own home. They were the family he had always wanted. And when his parents divorced after twenty-five years of marriage when he was sixteen, he’d poured all his anger, heartache, and confusion into his food.
Meredith had asked him why he was back. Well, that was one reason. He still had something to prove in Dare.
“Uh-huh,” he muttered, his jaw tight. He wished she’d go away before he gave into the temptation to bean her with an eggplant.
“The Chop House is a good place for you. Nothing like a good steak.”
He’d gambled that the Chop House would allow him some creative freedom after he’d proven himself. It was a slow process, but he’d persuaded the owner to consider a beurre blanc sauce for the ribeye, to rave reviews. Of course, they had called it a white wine butter sauce, not wanting to use the French.
He just nodded. You didn’t converse with Mrs. Thomilson. You listened…or pretended to.
“Tom Kenders tells us you’re doing well.”
Brian’s brow rose. He wasn’t pleased that his boss was talking about him, but he wasn’t exactly surprised either.
“He said you got some ideas in New York, but you understand Dare isn’t the Big Apple and doesn’t want to be.”
“Dare’s always been its own place.”
“Exactly,” she harrumphed, her grin more a grimace. “Well, good to see you. Tell your mother I said hello. We miss her.”
He’d tell her when hell froze over. They didn’t talk. Three months after his parents’ divorce, she’d moved to Phoenix to marry a tight-assed podiatrist whom she’d met online, leaving her son with a father who was ashamed of him and didn’t care to understand him. Thank God neither of them lived here anymore. “Sure thing.”
When she left, he rolled his tense shoulders and let the avocado drop. It wasn’t ripe enough for tonight. He needed something else. He caught sight of the watercress and grabbed a shiny Clementine. He could toast pecans with honey and bourbon. The combo would make a killer salad. He bagged everything and strolled down the aisles.
Going into business with Jill would silence anyone who’d ever suggested he was gay or a little loony for adding saffron to the church potato salad.
Up yours, Mrs. Thomilson
. He pushed his cart to the meat aisle.
Meredith wasn’t the only one who wanted to know why he was back. Everyone wondered. What none of them knew was that he didn’t have anywhere else to go. He’d bombed through a device of his own making in New York, and now he needed to rehabilitate his career and figure things out.
Then he would leave again. Move back to a Michelin-star restaurant. Please, God!
At least, that had been the plan before Jill came back into the picture. Of course, part of him had come back
of Jill, but he hadn’t known how deeply she’d affect him. He hadn’t known that her zest for life would leap out and grab him by the throat.
He’d had a hard time leaving the girl behind—untouched.
He didn’t think he could take the woman and be the same.
His phone rang, and his heart stopped when he saw the number. Why in the hell was Simca calling him again after all this time? This was the third day in a row. He hadn’t picked up, although part of him wanted to know why his former lover was trying to get in touch with him.
She and her husband owned the restaurant where Brian had worked in New York. She’d told Brian the marriage was over, and they’d started an affair while her husband was abroad, opening another restaurant. As soon as he’d returned, he’d fired Brian in front of the whole kitchen. To top it off, he’d accused him of stealing secret family recipes. The end of the relationship had left Brian with a bunch of what-ifs and whys, about as filling as a side salad after a day-long hike.
Wasn’t this another reason he didn’t want to jump into an intense relationship with Jill? He snorted to himself. Right. What about them wasn’t intense?
Brian hit the ignore button and tucked his phone away, pushing the cart forcefully. No, he had nothing more to say to Simca. He was here. And the past needed to stay in the past.
His future depended upon it.
The meat aisle called like a siren, whispering
pan-seared, roasted, stewed.
The tantalizing voice loosened the knots in his gut. So many possibilities. He stood there, letting inspiration rise while the carts around him slowed down to watch.
He heard other whispers from the past—both from Dare and New York—but he tuned them out.
are’s Trio of Truth, as the citizens jokingly called them, walked into her coffee shop. Two generations of journalists ran the Hale family newspaper,
The Western Independent
, one of the leading national independent presses in the country. Jill’s grandpa had started it back when coffee had cost five cents. Since then, he’d shared that timeless beverage with countless presidents and world leaders. Now her sister had taken over for their newly retired dad, and their grandpa couldn’t be happier. Add Meredith’s new husband into the mix—a former international correspondent—and Arthur Hale had as much of a spring in his step as was possible for a guy in his seventies.
Meredith held hands with Tanner like always, and he paused to hold the door for Grandpa Hale. If you didn’t know the old geezer well, you’d think his scowl sprung from a dislike of Jill’s establishment. But while he might bitch about her frou-frou coffee and the prices, it was all an act. Of course, she egged him on to keep his heart ticking.
“You in the mood for a raspberry mocha, Grandpa? Just in time for Valentine’s Day.”
His bushy eyebrow lifted. “Are you addled? Give me a damn normal coffee. Don’t understand why people want fruit in their coffee. In my day—”
“People put fruit with Jello, marshmallows, and whipped cream and called it a salad,” Jill interrupted, tapping her hot pink fingernails on the counter. “In my day, a real salad had lettuce and—”
“Hi, Jill,” Tanner interrupted, his dark hair and eyes a dead ringer for her mocha espressos. “I’ll have a café Americano. And my beautiful wife would like…” He studied the board and then turned to study Meredith. The jolt between them was like one of Zeus’ lightning bolts. Jill sighed with envy. Would she and Brian ever be like that?
“Oh, for cripes sake,” her grandfather muttered. “They’re like this all the time. Order that fruit coffee. Anything to stop the goo-goo eyes.”
Tanner’s shoulders shook with laughter. “Goo-goo eyes? Wow, that’s a blast from the past.”
“Well I’m as old as dirt, too. I can’t believe I walked all the way over here in the cold for this coffee and this conversation. My hip.” He patted it for effect.
Jill rolled her eyes. His health couldn’t be better. “Mere?”
“The raspberry one sounds scrumptious.”
Tanner fiddled with his wallet. “We’re discussing a new editorial, and we needed some neutral space. These two were going at it pretty hard.”
“And you’re what?” Meredith frowned. “Jimmy Carter at the peace talks? I happen to remember …”
Jill grabbed his twenty and headed off to make their coffees, waving off her barista, Margie. When they turned all journalistic, there was no talking to them.
She made sure her grandpa’s mug didn’t have a single water mark on it, or he’d give her a hard time. Some families patted you on the back to show love and support. Other families teased. The Hale family could have won an Emmy for best comedy.
The new raspberry coffee featured for Valentine’s Day made her think of Brian. Of course. Would they do anything for Valentine’s Day after having their first date tonight? It was only a week away.
“Here you go,” she called.
They automatically reached for their coffees as they continued their discussion of health care. They made their way to a table, greeting other patrons as they went. The group was so intent on each other that it was hard not to feel left out.
It didn’t usually bother her that she wasn’t part of the Hale journalism club, but with The Trio of Truth in
place, her old feelings of being a black sheep nagged at her.
Don’t Soy With Me was an inarguable success, but she wanted more. Some people still thought her place “too cute for words.” Man, stuffing a croissant in their mouths was tempting. She wanted to show Dare and her family she could make it big, as big as the family newspaper.
Mostly, she wanted to prove it to herself. And opening a restaurant with Brian seemed to be just the ticket. And it would have the added benefit of keeping him here.
Margie bumped her hip. “Lost in thought?”
“Not enough coffee this morning.”
“Let me make you something special.” Her eyebrow ring winked in the light.
She turned away. Jemma had always done that for her. Her best friend had helped her create Don’t Soy With Me. She glanced up at the plaque she’d mounted on the back wall after Jemma’s death. Her picture was on one side, with the inscription
Our Coffee Angel. You’ll Always Be In Our Hearts.
on the other.
The phone rang, interrupting her reverie.
Margie hooked it by her neck. “Sure thing.” She put the phone down. “Hey, it’s that guy with the sinfully gorgeous voice that keeps calling you and won’t leave a message. I’m almost sad you’re here because I’ve started looking forward to his calls.”
The mystery made her do a little jiggle. “Well, I’ll just have to find out what he wants.”
“Just wait. His voice…it’s like French silk pie.”
Margie mimed a faint. Jill headed back to her office. This call had better be as interesting as billed. If it was some sicko calling to ask what she was wearing, she’d tell Peggy later and let her friend go all deputy sheriff, talking animatedly about how the law needed to handle weirdoes better before they became a threat. The strangest things improved Peggy’s mood.
Her recently painted purple desk made her smile. She’d updated it to match her coffee table at home. With the red and yellow walls, green chair, and blue lagoon painting on the wall, her office pretty much screamed rainbows and unicorns. She loved it.
“Hello. This is Jill Hale.”
“Ms. Hale, you’re a difficult woman to reach. My name is Mac Maven.”
prompt a delicious shiver. French silk pie fit the bill. “Mr. Maven, how can I help you?”
“I’m interested in meeting with you about a business proposition. We have a common friend, Jack Higgins.”
What on earth could this be about? Jack was a regular who’d been coming in more than usual recently. Just last week, he had taken lots of photos of her shop, telling her he was trying to convince some friends in Silicon Valley how civilized Dare was so they’d visit. Was this guy one of them? Jack had made millions out there before moving to their small town with his wife and two kids to enjoy a less-frantically paced life, consulting on the side. What she really liked about him was how down to earth he was in spite of all his money and success.
“Jack’s a great guy. I’d be happy to meet with you.” As a favor to Jack, if nothing else. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, it’s a bit complicated.” He paused. “I know it’s rather unorthodox, but my business interests require a confidentiality agreement. Jack can vouch for me if you’re concerned.”
She spun her lucky Flying Purple People Eater pen in a circle, beyond intrigued. “A confidentiality agreement, huh?” Now that did sound Silicon Valley-like.
His laughter erupted—a rich, easy sound. “No, nothing like that. It’s a formality. I’d really love to waive it, but my lawyers would be unhappy, and they’d use it as an excuse to raise my fees.”
This time she laughed. She kept Stanley Kepok on retainer, but he was the paper’s attorney and didn’t charge her a dime. “I’ve heard tales.”
“Why don’t you take my number and call Jack for a reference? Then you can call me back.”
She wrote his mobile number down when he recited it. “Okay, but I should warn you. I’m thinking about another business venture right now.” Brian’s gorgeous face popped into her mind.
“You strike me as someone who’d be intrigued by the type of business proposal that would come with a confidentiality agreement.”
“You’re right, but my partner and I go way back.”
“Ah,” he murmured, making her wish Margie was the one on the phone. Jill had no interest in anyone but Brian, but this man’s voice did make her tingle.
“How far back?”
“To my first business. A lemonade stand.”
“How’d you do?”
“We raked it in. I convinced my grandpa to let me do an ad in our family newspaper. Then I got my mother to buy all the fresh lemons in Dare and help us bake cookies. My partner thought oatmeal raisin would go better than chocolate chip. Not as sweet.” She paused for a second, warmed by the memory. “He was right.”
“So you’re destined to turn lemons into lemonade again?”
“Something like that.”
“Just do one thing for me. Call Jack.”
“Okay, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Stop. You’re worse than the Pied Piper.”
“Okay. And Jill, I just have one more thing to say, scout’s honor. After everything I’ve heard about you and your coffee shop, I can’t wait to meet you in person. Enjoy your day.”
“Thanks,” she breathed out. “You too.”
When the phone went dead, she stared at it. The intrigue
getting to her, so she emailed Jack for more information. Then she opened her laptop. Mac’s name popped up in the search bar before she’d even keyed in three letters.
His picture almost made her call in Margie. Oh my God. His green eyes seemed to follow you—kinda like people said about the great portraits. He was all high cheekbones and mischievous smile, with straight hair so brown it was almost black, and a dimple in his chin. He looked about Tanner’s age—mid to late thirties. Wow, he could have been on a soap opera.
She hunkered down when she found his bio. Mac Maven was a major player in the world of poker, and he ran a business called Four Aces, Inc. It specialized in boutique poker hotels—not the huge casino types with flashy slot machines. He was so not from Silicon Valley. She laughed.
“Maybe he wants to franchise my coffee shop for his hotels.” He had famous chefs at fancy restaurants, but no coffee joints. It was a possibility. Jill did a little dance in her chair.
He was big time. And he wanted her. The big question was: for what?
As usual, she was getting carried away.
But this could be so much bigger than any restaurant,
she heard her Inner Businesswoman whisper into her ear.
She was a terrible person. She did believe bigger was better.
Well, she and Brian were only
about opening a place together.
He hasn’t agreed yet,
the little voice added. She’d have to see what Jack said and how things went with Brian.
She clicked her laptop off so she could focus on the present moment.
She had a date to prepare for. One she’d waited for all her life.