Authors: Melissa Whittle
Tags: #aa romance, #series, #small town, #ptsd, #grief, #bakery, #coffee shop, #Alpha Hero Romance, #business partners, #Melissa Blue, #contemporary romance, #multicultural romance
“True,” Tina said. “I’ll give you that one.”
“Eight minutes,” George corrected unnecessarily. “We’ll get out of your hair and check back with you later.” His tone said not to argue.
“Thanks,” he bit out the polite word. Might as well practice now. Tobias was going to have to deal with Emmaline. Sans menace.
Emma glanced up at the sound of heels clacking against the hallway’s floor. Abigail stopped in the kitchen door, cocked a hip on the door jamb.
“She’s experimenting,” Abigail called over her shoulder, presumably to Sasha. Where one went, the other followed.
The black pants suit hugged all the curves Abigail had and hid any imperfection, if there were any. The red blouse gave a pop of color to the ensemble. “We’re going to need butter to grease our butts out the door.” Her friend sent her black strands flying with a shake of her head. “Wait, why don’t I smell macadamia nuts?”
Sasha’s gauzy green dress flapped in an ethereal pattern as she came forward. “I don’t smell macadamia either. It’s a conspiracy.”
Standing together, the pair of them were stunning. Too many days to count, Emma felt like she blended into the checkered floor. Emma wasn’t plain. She could hold her own when it came time to give off the vixen vibe. The difference, she wasn’t born with come-hither like these two. If she had been either one of her friends, Graham, the man who kissed her senseless, would have broken his neck to flirt with her.
He hadn’t. Instead, he had stated the obvious in a brusque tone, never stopping to mention he’d kissed her and how dumb that was for
. He kissed someone he believed to be crazy.
Pot, I would like you to meet Kettle
She sighed quietly. Emma had tried and failed to write Graham out of her mind once she put his coat in the closet. How many times did reality have to slap her in order to accept it never trumped fantasy?
But he kept creeping in as she cast him in the role of a prince among men. She wove one hell of yarn with the fantasy of him fixed in her mind. If their meeting had gone differently…fate having a hand in it of course, he’d do his best to play it cool. Yet, he would be enchanted with the everyday Emma. He would have asked her out. His last words would not have been
I’m going to go
. The point being, she continued to hope there was one man, at the very least, that could live up to the expectations she had. None had and it seemed, no one would.
Pushing Graham out of her thoughts, for good this time, she said, “I should hate you for never gaining an ounce.”
Emma pushed the tray of cookies to the edge of the island for her friends to taste-test, and parted open recipe books like the Red Sea that covered the large wooden island. Most had been her mother’s, and most, now, had pen or pencil additions on every page.
“A sugar cookie with lemon zest. I was feeling zingy today.” Her announcement brought on a heavy silence. She looked up when it stretched moments longer. “What?” she said.
“And what brought on this zest?” Abigail inquired.
Heat warmed her cheeks. She’d have to share her unending shame. “Being embarrassed down to my pinky toes.” Emma tapped the pencil on the notepad in a staccato beat. “The guy from last night came in.”
Sasha paused with a second cookie scant inches from her lips. Her friend swallowed what remained in her mouth, and glanced at the cookie she held. A moment later she shoved the treat inside and spoke around a fountain of crumbs. “He stalked you?” Even with the mouthful, the worry was evident.
“Kismet,” Emma corrected. “Graham had a sudden urge for something sweet for breakfast, walked in and there I was turning red at the roots.”
Her mind filled with Graham. Again. If pressured to describe the man she wouldn’t be able to. His presence, stronger than the scent of fresh coffee, surrounded her. Because of it, Emma’s brain snagged on stupid stuff like the way his dark brown eyes, damn near the shade of midnight, undressed her. The gaze belied the stoic exterior, and the heat of it sent a tingle down her spine. She flushed at the memory of how he cataloged every inch of her flesh despite being fully clothed.
His gaze had been intense, but not in a leering way. It had been more of a sensual checklist detailing her every facet. The warmth vanished, doused when she remembered the sudden frost that had come over him. From hot to cold in sixty seconds, the man was more efficient than a bowl of ice water.
He was no one’s prince. The main ingredient for her perfect man was charm. Graham had none.
“This sounds promising.” Abigail knocked Sasha’s hand away from the dwindling pile of cookies, gave her a slow-down look and took a treat for herself.
“What? I haven’t eaten all day,” Sasha said, frowning. “Plus, it’s a compliment to the cook.”
“Thanks,” Emma said. “And Graham isn’t promising. There’s a difference between appreciating the view while visiting and not wanting to take a scenic route. I got the distinct impression he wanted the latter. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I’m off the market. Did I mention he gave me a lecture about being naked?”
Abigail snorted. “You lectured us. The guy sounds right up your alley.”
“I would say he’s not into women.” Sasha reached for another cookie. “But the way he kissed you means he’s totally into women.”
“Also, you’ve been off the market so long your expiration date is about to pass,” Abigail said. “I’m not saying marry the guy. See where it goes. You keep expecting to be swept off your feet. If that’s what you want then climb up a ladder first and then drop down. See if he has good enough reflexes to catch you before your butt hits the ground.” Abigail turned to Sasha. “He’s into women. No question.”
“I’m not expecting to be swept off my feet.” Emma threw down her pencil. “It would be nice. Settling isn’t for me. My parents didn’t settle and what they had was great.”
“What they had was improbable,” Abigail said.
Sasha smiled. “It was love at first sight.”
“And settling is just another way of re-aligning your expectations to reality,” Abigail argued.
Emma shook her head, looked between her two friends. “Being swept off my feet is just another way to ensure the man I fall for is healthy enough to carry me.”
“Sweeping is a planned action.” Sasha frowned at the empty plate, but kept talking. “Any man can work out for weeks so when the time comes he can carry you up those stairs. You’re fooled into believing he’s your Rhett Butler. But the man that’s there when you fall and can catch you…” Sasha grinned this time, full of secrets only she knew. “Find the man with reflexes.”
Graham had the reflexes. Within seconds, he had her wrapped in his coat and up against the window.
Scratch that observation
Emma started to clean up. Her friends had devoured a little more than a dozen cookies between the two in less than twenty minutes. This recipe was a winner. She’d make more and set them out to sell.
“Huh.” Sasha wiped her hands together dispelling any crumbs. “But why did his jacket smell like coffee?”
“I probably smell like cinnamon,” Emma said.
“Vanilla,” both women corrected her, and then glared playfully at each other before smiling. “Maybe,” Abigail said. “The new tradition should be jinx.”
“I’d appreciate it.” Emma saw the argument brewing between the two women.
“Anyway, I’m hankering for coffee all of a sudden. All those cookies.” Sasha smiled at Abigail and the other woman grinned back.
They were amusing until they agreed on a point and put their forces together, against Emma. “No. I’m going to this meeting alone. Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean he’s available.”
“You’ve refreshed your make-up,” Sasha said.
Emma narrowed her gaze, knowing exactly where the conversation was going. “He’s passionate about coffee. I’m passionate about desserts. We align in business and business only. I’m tired of being the little bakery on the corner. I want to expand. I want to take risks. With my bakery only.” She emphasized the last sentence.
They turned to her with what was supposed to be angelic expressions. Maybe fallen and forsaken angels. Emma shook her head, exasperated. She would have let them go over alone to Caff-aholic, but there was no telling the havoc they would wreck unsupervised.
“If I’m taking you with me, you’ll be my selling points. Abigail mention you’re in advertising. Sasha, talk up how you designed my placards and logo.” Both women nodded in agreement. “Give me five minutes. I’m covered in flour.”
Crossing the floor in a few strides, she entered the stockroom and then the bathroom. Three minutes later, she found Sasha behind the counter, placing something into a medium-sized box.
“Business-warming gift.” Sasha smiled.
Abigail said in a co-conspiratorial tone, “The coup de grace: Late Night Tennessee will get this guy to say yes to anything.”
Emma quelled her friend with a look. The ebony-haired vixen got her current boyfriend after feeding it to him. It was four months before Miguel realized her friend couldn’t cook, other than breakfast foods. The dessert was like a siren’s call.
“It’s dangerous,” Emma said.
“It’s neighborly,” Sasha corrected. “Ready?”
Emma shook her hands to dispel the sudden tremble. There was a lot riding on this deal. She wanted it now like she had wanted to open the store a few years ago. From the volley of e-mails, Emma could tell Tobias, through his yes man and woman, had high standards. Something she would need in a business partnership. She pushed down the smile of satisfaction.
The meeting today was a formality. As far as business was concerned, they matched well. Tobias had met her standards: passionate about his work, knowledgeable about his business and clear in what he wanted out of their arrangement. In the five years she owned Sweet Tooth, no one else had come close to convincing Emma to put her specialties in their store. This proved, at least in her own mind, Emmaline Sharp didn’t settle. Ever.
“Why not be neighborly?” Abigail grinned at her with a knowing expression—Emma caved.
“Sometimes, you guys are annoying,” Emma said.
Once she closed down the store, Emma met her friends on the sidewalk. The cool interior of her store hadn’t prepared her for the slap of heat. The morning’s chill was long gone now with the sun beginning to set. The fading light blared off car windshields. She glanced up at Caff-aholic’s brand new sign, one that hadn’t been put up until the late afternoon. Hanging between the top of the building and the roof, the font had a masculine feel to it. A black cup of coffee highlighted the cream detailing. The tan words didn’t swirl or swoop. Simple and elegant.
She walked into the shop, and the bitter and sweet tang of coffee instilled an instant comfort. The arrangement gave her a sense of the owner. He liked efficiency. Nothing cluttered on the counters. The tables were set up so that you wouldn’t sit down and feel your space was being invaded. She pursed her lips at the handful of customers. Not bad for a first day.
Her gazed settled on the man behind the counter. Emma’s heart stuttered, stopped and went into overdrive. Graham directed an easy but guarded smile at another local store owner. Tobias’/Graham’s yes man and woman had stated in an e-mail he had no other employees as of yet, but would once business picked up.
It didn’t take much of a leap to figure out the man who had seen her Getting Lucky tattoo owned Caff-aholic. The reaction to the sight of him was visceral. Her breath shortened as the memories cascaded of both their first and second meeting. Anger and desire blazed through Emma in equal measure.
With fisted hands braced against the counter, he chatted with co-owner of the hardware store. A black tee shirt hung loose over his chest and hid the sinew of biceps she remembered he had, but it showed his beautifully sculpted forearms. Tobias’/Graham’s eyes had an intent focus as if later he would write down all the details of his conversation and burn them to memory.
“It smells like him.” Emma breathed in the same scent that infused the leather jacket. As Abigail would have put so succinctly, it smelled fucking edible.
“What?” Sasha said, but Emma had lost her ability of speech.
The same man who had rescued her the night before, kissed her with wild abandon, was the man with whom she planned to set up a business arrangement.
Emma should have been shocked. Even a little angry because he’d known who she was earlier and hadn’t said anything. Instead, she tripped up on stupid stuff, like how the lighting allowed for a cozy atmosphere, but she could remember in the shadows how his mouth and tongue could lash out a punishment. The same visceral reaction left Emma wanting to do more things Tobias could punish her for.
Her mind snagged on more dumb things, like how her eyes couldn’t stop drinking him in. He nodded to Lucia and the intent focus flicked to Emma. His gaze stripped her bare. She couldn’t help but revel in the feeling of being both vulnerable and desired.
She frowned. Although Abigail stood right next to her, Tobias’ gaze didn’t waver. Emma glanced to her left and made sure Sasha was still there, too. She was. Emma’s frown deepened. It felt odd to have such an intense gaze focused solely on her.
Tobias held Emma’s gaze for another beat and then brought his attention back to the local store owner. She noted he hadn’t looked apologetic for lying.
“Speaking of a scenic route, not only does he want to take yours…” Abigail sounded a little breathless. “I―I can’t even think of something dirty enough to finish that sentence.”
“You?” Sasha whispered. “Speechless? I’m impressed and intrigued.” She forced the box into Emma’s hands.
“It was your idea,” Emma muttered, but stepped forward when the older woman moved from the counter.
As they passed, Lucia nodded to all three women and left. Tobias crossed his arms, his eyes never leaving her face as she made her way to counter. She gave Tobias points for not looking at her boobs now that the apron was out of the way.
“Emmaline,” he said.
, she thought, at the sound of her full name but said, “Tobias,” to make it clear she knew his true identity. Still no guilt crossed his face. She cleared her throat, motioning to the two women beside her. “My tribe wanted to thank my rescuer.”