I hopped back a good three feet, but it was way too late. “Aww, come on.”
I stared down at the puddle of coffee dripping from the worn Formica tabletop to the red vinyl booth. The cracked pot in my hand held a jagged edge that could be a prop in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Right down to the coffee-stained orange lip.
If I had to sacrifice my last pair of white Converse sneakers to the coffee gods, at least it should’ve been goddamn full octane coffee, not decaf.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Diggs. Don’t move, okay?”
Mrs. Diggs, one of the diner’s regulars, shuffled to the end of her booth and cupped her mug in her manicured hands. She picked up her feet—clad in bright orange and white sneakers—as the coffee raced toward the wall of windows.
I winced. Dammit, the baseboards needed a scrub again. Maybe I could convince Mitch to let me stay late or come in early one day. I’d been picking up as many shifts as he’d allow me to, but at least if I did this it wouldn’t require talking to people.
I was pretty much talked out.
“Are you all right, dear?”
“Fine. I just don’t want you to get cut, okay? Give me a quick second and I’ll brew you a fresh pot.” Disgusted, I dropped my threadbare towel over the glass and scraped the shards into a pile as I shimmied my way out from under the table. “Sage, can you grab me another towel?” I hollered over my shoulder.
My best friend’s head popped out from around the corner. I gave her a rueful smile as I lost the battle against the river of coffee.
Sage rushed over with a pile of towels and crouched beside me. She blew a honey blond curl out of her face. No matter how many pins Sage Evans jammed into her twisting pile of curls, one invariably escaped. Luckily it only enhanced her heart-shaped face and huge green eyes.
“What happened?” She started mopping up the escaping coffee.
“Careful.” I grabbed her hand just before a hook-shaped shard of glass took a chunk out of her palm.
“Jeez, what did you do?”
I set what was left of the pot on the table. “One too many times left on the burner while empty is my guess. I barely tapped the side of the table and pop-crash.”
“Coffee.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Full pot no less.” I managed not to let the growl or the string of swear words free as I reached back under the booth and mopped up the coffee under Mrs. Diggs’ feet. “Okay, you’re set.”
The woman put her feet down as I crawled back out from under the booth. A pair of dark jeans and black boots stopped two inches from my coffee-splattered khakis.
I knew those boots.
My gaze skipped up to the way his jeans molded to strong thighs and a bulge behind his zipper that had caused me way too many sleepless nights.
My best friend since high school tucked his thumb into his pocket and drummed his fingers lightly against his leg. “Is this a new customer service thing?”
My mouth tipped up at one corner. If he only knew what kind of service I wanted to offer. “Jerk.”
Even with the slightly burnt decaf wafting up from the floor—and covering me from knee to toes, couldn’t forget that part—there was no denying Seth Hamilton’s delicious toasted sugar and sex scent.
It was some ungodly expensive cologne. I wasn’t exactly proud of the fact that I’d gone to a department store’s counter to take an extra whiff of it. I’d hunted it down so I didn’t seem like some perv by burying my face in his chest to get a better inhale.
However, the bottled version wasn’t nearly as divine as it was on Seth. Probably had something to do with his stupid pheromones.
Or the fact that his alarmingly perfect body chemistry made everything smell good—even during that one night we spent together with his daughter up all night with a fever.
I’ve relived that night more than I care to admit. Not the awful part. I’m not a freak. But I can’t help remembering the aftermath when we melted into a heap on the couch in half-hysterical laughter from exhaustion and relief. Yeah, so I shouldn’t have noticed, but I’m human.
It wasn’t like I jumped him.
I thought about it for a hot second. To be honest, I think about it all the damn time. When you didn’t get any attention of a sexual nature, it tended to take over the whole frontal lobe. The fact that he was so delectable didn’t help. However, the idea of tilting our perfect friendship into naked time was too much to deal with. Much of my life was the same refrain.
Me lusting after my best friend. Him completely clueless. Me more than willing to let him stay in the dark. It was a pathetic song that I couldn’t stop playing.
I scrubbed my tingling palms on my thighs and noticed his untucked white dress shirt. He was still wearing a navy sport jacket so he wasn’t completely off the clock, but definitely not in sales-mode. His dark hair was tousled from the breeze off the water, a pair of mirrored aviators hid his equally dark eyes, and his perpetual scruff made my insides buzzy. Who the hell needed caffeine when Seth came into The Rusty Spoon?
Or the thoughts of me on my knees in front of said man.
Good God, pull it together, girl. I slapped my thighs to kill the last of the buzzing. “Hi.”
“Hi yourself.” He bent at the waist and I got a blast of that sugar sex. He took off his sunglasses and his eyes crinkled at the sides as he smiled. His gaze slid from me to Sage. “Two-woman job? Must be serious.”
“Hey, Pita.” Sage rolled her eyes before bunching all the towels together. “I’ll put on that pot for you.” She stood up and dropped the pile on the lunch counter so it wouldn’t drip all over the floor.
“Thanks,” I murmured.
“Wow, ten points for the full-on shatter, Ally Cat.” He helped me to a standing position, then hustled around the counter for the garbage and dragged it over to me. He must have heard the crunch and click of glass because he cupped his hands around mine and pulled them over the bin. I didn’t bother trying to save the towel, just shot the whole thing in the trash. “No cuts?”
“I’m fine, Dad.” Or I would be if he’d let me go. Because seriously, I couldn’t deal with tingles on top of mortifying coffee splatters. Not that I wasn’t used to the eternal stains that were part of being a waitress at the diner. It just seemed extra embarrassing in front of Seth.
He flipped my hands palms up then coasted the pads of his fingers over the tops. “All good.”
I curled my fingers into my palms. “Told you. The only casualty is my Chucks.”
He glanced around the garbage to my shoes. “Yeah, they’re toast.”
“No, I’ll just use them as my new mopping shoes.”
“Nothing.” The little wrinkle between his brows cleared as he noticed Mrs. Diggs in the booth. “Aren’t you looking lovely, Mrs. Diggs? New workout gear?”
“Charmer.” But she preened and smoothed her bejeweled hand over the expensive designer Adidas jacket in the same orange and white of her shoes. “Nice to see someone watching after our Alison though.”
“Oh, brother.” I turned to the counter lined with red vinyl stools and collapsed onto one to take stock of my situation.
Most of the coffee had hit the floor and my shoes, so I guess that was something at least. I stalked down the aisle and inwardly groaned at the squeak of my rubber soles. I hustled to the carpet in front of the door and scuffed my feet. I could actually feel the coffee squishing inside my shoes.
My life—up to my ankles in crap coffee. Of course.
I went around behind the counter to take care of the pile of towels Sage had left. “What’s up, Seth? You don’t usually come in this late.”
“I actually have some papers for you.”
My gaze swung back to him. He nodded to the back of the diner where he always sat. “Can you take a few minutes?”
It was only then that I noticed the folder in his hand. The white Hamilton Realty logo scrawled across the dense green glossy folder. My stomach twisted for a whole different reason this time.
What could have been my house if it wasn’t full of shitty memories and the stench of too much antiseptic. I closed my eyes as a wave of exhaustion chased the sad. It had been three months since my mom had finally passed away after a soul-crushing bout with cancer. She’d always been fragile, but the last five years had about killed me too.
By the end, all I wanted was peace for her.
And maybe a little for myself. I only let that part out in the deepest, darkest parts of the night where sleep and waking overlapped. When the quiet was finally comforting and the hiss of the oxygen compressor wasn’t my constant companion for the first time in too many years to remember.
But then the alarm pushed me out of the quiet and into my current reality. Bills, life, the diner, plans…all jumbled together in my little planner. And the little secret pocket where I’d stashed the page of classes I wanted to take. I had sent off for a few brochures from schools in New York City, and I looked at them now and then.
It had been so long since I could think about what I wanted that I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to do. But it didn’t stop me from poring over my brochures and the college catalog online.
Too bad dreams didn’t pay the bills.
I pressed a shaking hand over my belly. “Yeah. Let me make sure I can take my fifteen.”
I hurried over to the sink. My rings clicked together as I soaped up my hands to get the coffee smell off them. “Mitch, I’m going to take my break.”
He only grunted. Typical.
“Sage, you okay?”
She waved me off. “Sure. Take it now before the biddies come in for the early bird special.”
“Truth.” I smoothed my hand over my apron and stuck my order pad in the front pocket. I double checked that I had three pens like I always did. Patrons were notorious thieves. Not sure why they wanted my cheapie Bic pens, but they were forever walking off with them.
I was tempted to roll my eyes at myself, but that took too much energy and I didn’t have much to spare. I grabbed a fruit plate and a scoop of cottage cheese to get me through the rest of the evening. Sage and I might have time for a bite after the dinner rush, but more often than not, it just rolled into dessert business and the endless coffee mug crowd.
I snagged a menu on my way down the aisle to him. Seth was sprawled in his favorite booth, his long legs encroaching on my side. I kicked his boot as I sat down and dropped the menu in front of him. “How you don’t have that memorized is beyond me.”
He straightened and placed his phone face down on the table, then propped the menu against the wall. “Just coffee this time.”
“Oh. Have an appointment?” I ate a forkful of my cottage cheese.
He sneered at my plate. “So gross.”
I forked up some more and held it in front of him. “So good.”
I snagged a piece of pineapple to go with my forkful and chewed with a smile. “How would you know? You still won’t try the wonders of my fruit plate.”
“It’s a texture thing.”
“And yet you’ll eat grits.”
“Only Angelo’s grits. Which reminds me.” He flipped over his menu. “I have been dreaming about his kitchen sink omelet.”
“Kinda lame dreams.”
He glanced over the menu. “I can’t have dreams about you naked all the time.”
He winked at me and I tamped down the hormones prepared to leap across the table.
Sage came over with a grilled cheese sandwich and slid it in front of me. In her other hand was a pot of coffee. “What are you having, Seth?”
I frowned. “I didn’t order this.”
Sage put her hand on her hip. “That fruit thing isn’t going to hold you over for the rest of the day.”
“Thanks. My ass won’t thank you, but I do.”
“Your ass is just fine.”
“Sure is,” Seth agreed.
What the hell was up with the comments? He didn’t notice my ass.
I shook my head and peeled the triangles apart as the lava-like mixture of cheddar and muenster that spilled onto the plate made me moan. Cheese was my downfall. I could pretty much give up anything except that.
Noticing Seth’s smirk, I dragged my fingertip through the cheese and brought it to my mouth. “What?”
“Should we leave you alone?”
“Fine by me. We’ll live happily ever after, won’t we, you gooey piece of perfection?”
Seth shook his head. He flipped his mug right side up on the saucer. “I’ll just have coffee.”
“You sure?” Sage asked as she poured.
“Yeah. I really want that omelet, but it’ll have to wait until next time.”
Sage nodded. “You got it.” She glanced at me. “I got Mrs. Diggs.”
“Oh, crap. I forgot.” I swiveled to give the older woman a smile.
“She wasn’t mad?”
Sage shook her head. “Too busy staring at this one’s ass.” She nodded at Seth.
He waggled his eyebrows.
Sage rolled her eyes. “I’ll leave you guys to it.”
As soon as she walked away, Seth folded his hands on the folder. “So about the house.”
I looked down at my sandwich and picked up half. “Want?”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t want to come between you two.”
I shrugged. Fine by me. I sucked at sharing anyway. If he wanted to keep it about business, I could do that. “How’d we do?”
He blew out a breath. “I’d prefer to leave it on the market so we—”
“Nope. Can’t. John Chandler gave me three months to sell and here we are a week past that.”
His eyebrows snapped down and his jaw muscle flexed. I’d bet twenty bucks he was grinding his molars. But it was my decision, not his.
“I told you I could—”
“Nope.” I yanked a napkin out of the dispenser to degrease my fingertips before I covered his clenched hands. “You know I can’t.” He’d been trying to throw money at all my problems for years, but my answer was always the same. Even if he had more money than most of the Crescent Cove population combined, I couldn’t take money from a friend.
Especially not Seth.
God, not him.
“Let me talk to John. We throw him a hell of a lot of business. I can pull a favor.”
I had a feeling the three months I’d been granted was already one of those favors. No matter how much history I had in this town, a banker wasn’t going to let me slide when it came to prime land, even if it was on the fringes of lakefront property. Add in the mortgage I could barely scrape together now that my mother’s social security was gone and the only math that made sense was selling the house.
John Chandler over at Crescent Cove Credit Union might be a sweet man who coached Little League on the weekends, but he was still a businessman. And there were rules.
Rules I was intimately aware of. My mother’s modest life insurance policy did little more than cover her burial and a small memorial service.
“I’ve got a guy who’s buying up some of the older…” He trailed off.
I squeezed him one last time before sliding my hands back across the table and picking up my sandwich again. “Shacks? You can say it. I know my house wasn’t much.”
He swiped his hand along the back of his neck. “Dammit, Al.”
“It is what it is. She wanted a house on the lake, and it was all I could afford on my meager salary and what she had in the bank. It was enough for us.” My bedroom had been little more than a closet, but my mom had been happy her last few years and that had been all that mattered.
“A new company is looking to build family houses on the lake to beef up the rentals for the season.”
“The Kennedys kind or…?”
He nodded. “The middle-income kind of families. I’m not completely against what they’re doing.”
I broke off a corner of my toasted cheese and popped it in my mouth. “That’s great. You know this town relies on seasonal visitors. Though I’m glad they’re not just making mansions.”
His eyes glittered. “No.”
I knew Seth and his brother had been working hard to keep Crescent Cove from turning into the Hamptons part two. They were probably the only reason half the coast hadn’t been razed and turned into huge houses and overpriced hotels.
But the Cove was a mix of wealthy and working class. Just the way I loved it. Though I wouldn’t mind being one of the wealthy someday.
And maybe if I could get the house sold and get back to even, I’d have at least a chance at some kind of future besides drowning in debt.
“What’s the offer?”
I listened to him drone on about the sale and the banks. I swallowed when he opened the folder and slid a printed page my way. The sale price wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but it would cover what I needed it to.
It would leave me with a big fat zero in my bank, but at least it wasn’t a minus sign.
Right now, that was glorious and I was calling it a win. I folded the paper in half. “Thank you, Seth.”
“Don’t thank me. I’d rather you walked away or haggled for more.”
I lifted my chin and pushed my plate away. “Do you think I’d actually get it?” He opened his mouth. “Without doing upgrades and all the things you wanted me to do to the house?” He shut it. “I thought so.”
“Fuck.” He slumped in seat a little. “I don’t like any of this.”
“You don’t have to like it. Just make sure I don’t get too screwed and be my friend. Simple things. It’s all I really need.” I put my leg out and twisted my ankle to show off my splattered shoes. “And a new pair of sneakers. Which I need to work to pay for. Just let me know when and where to be to sign the papers.” I started to slide out of the booth.
“Your fifteen isn’t over yet.”
“Almost. Fifteen minutes goes quick. You know that.”
He pressed his lips together and his eyes flared with something. I didn’t even want to think about what they flared with. It didn’t happen often, but there were moments when I wondered if he thought about other, less platonic things when it came to me.
But it was much easier to file those moments away as aberrations and fantasies.
“Just one more thing.”
“It’s never just one more thing with you.”
“You’re killing me, Al.”
“Right back atcha, buddy.” Exasperation was the word of the day. When he leaned forward, his dark eyes were a little too serious. I straightened and pulled my hands away from my plate to land in my lap. I twirled my thumb ring as a sudden chill climbed up my hairline.
He leaned forward, suddenly earnest. Too earnest. When Seth Hamilton acted solemn, he was up to something, and chances were high I wouldn’t like it.
“Will you have my baby?”