Series: Echo Ridge Romances #2
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 10/11/2017
Contributors: Heather Tullis
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Fay’s life is just fine, thank you. Running the café she’d practically been raised in: Check. Her artwork in a gallery: Check. Volunteering on the library board: Check. The one thing she doesn’t need right now is a guy in her life—especially her brother’s irritating best friend from high school, so when the two men announce that they are moving home to start a ski and mountain bike shop in town, she isn’t pleased. If only she could completely forget that one kiss she and Austin shared in high school. Why does he have to upset her just-fine world? Not this time. Not if she can help it. But can she?
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FAY HAD NEVER WISHED to escape from a library before, but suddenly felt a consuming desire to get away before she got roped into something more.
“Hardcover,” Marian, the assistant librarian, added before Fay slipped through the doors into the cool autumn air.
“Easier said than done,” Fay muttered as she tipped her face back to capture more sunlight. She had shivered through the library board meeting for the past hour and was glad to get out.
Not that she didn’t love working with the library or look forward to her role as the food competition organizer for the upcoming library fundraiser—the Harvest Hurrah. She saw Kirke Staples and Jennifer Solomon getting into his Toyota sedan across the parking lot. Those two were the best of friends, and rarely found apart—she admitted to herself that she was jealous of their closeness, even if they did say their relationship was platonic. Who were they fooling, anyway—besides themselves?
She let that thought float away as she turned to the right, heading the half-block to the café she owned. The lunch rush would get started soon and apparently she had to add finding a copy of Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing to her lengthy to-do list before the Harvest Hurrah. In hardcover, no less. Marian had ruthlessly cornered everyone on their way out of the meeting—she was a woman with a mission and not afraid to chase it. Fay appreciated that quality, even though she wished she had escaped without an assignment this time. When would she find the time to shop for a special enough book to please Marian? She shook it off for the moment, needing to put the meeting into its mental cubicle and focus on what she needed to accomplish at work.
The “bustling” city center of Echo Ridge was nothing compared to New York City, where she had lived for nearly eight years before returning home to take over her grandmother’s café after the original Fay had passed away. Though she missed the mix of sights, sounds, and smells that had encircled her in the city, she had finally been ready to return home to face the people who had made her life miserable as a teen. Now, partly thanks to her work with the library board, she felt like she had found her groove in the quaint town that had changed so much and so little in the last decade.
The library had been an escape for her as a child—almost as much as her grandma’s café had been, so she had been excited at the prospect of joining the board to help improve and support it. The other members of the board had mostly stopped staring at the tattoos on her arms, and the hot pink streaks in her otherwise black hair. When she had lived in New York City, neither of those things would have even caught someone’s eye.
She waved to Jonah through his gallery window as she passed and felt flutters in her stomach when she thought of the showing in a couple weeks highlighting her work. Funny how she had run to New York City with dreams of being discovered, but it hadn’t happened in any real way until she moved home again. Life had a way of surprising you.
She took one last glance at her notes from the meeting and scribbled something about the book she needed to find and then pushed through the front door of her café. Her eyes swept through the 50’s decor, black and white Naugahyde booths, shiny silver trim, black wooden frames around some of her drawings on the walls, and the rotating seats at the counter. She waved to her regulars—a trio of middle-aged women sitting in the corner booth who were taking a break for some peach pie and coffee. Strangers ate at another table and Maria, a single mother of two young boys, cleaned a coffee pot on the far end of the waitress area.
“Hello,” Fay greeted Maria and Hank, the cook in back. Hank took care of most of the greasy spoon-style food these days while Fay bounced between paperwork, baking, and covering the front during Maria’s off-hours. Once a week she even flipped burgers and deep fried various things for customers so Hank and his evening relief, Dale, could have time off. She was glad business had grown enough to bring Maria on full time instead of having to work day and night herself, though she would soon need to add more workers to keep up with everything.
The extra help was especially nice now she was baking in the mornings before they opened.
Fay checked in with Hank and Maria to see if they needed anything before heading to the baking end of the kitchen.
Though she tried to focus on the recipe, her mind kept wandering. The kick-off for the library fundraiser next week was going to be great. People in the community were so excited to have the bestselling author Armand D. Beaumont in their midst. She wanted everything to be perfect for the Hurrah.
In the meantime, she had another event she was providing cookies for, so Fay pulled her hair back and covered it with a net, donned an apron, and started mixing dough. She would let it chill overnight and bake in the morning.
She had whipped up enough dough for six dozen peanut butter cookies, eight dozen chocolate chip cookies and had moved on to snicker doodle dough when Maria stepped into the kitchen area. “There are a couple of men here who want to speak to you.” Maria’s Spanish accent from her childhood in Peru was barely noticeable most of the time, but it showed up when she was nervous. Fay was surprised to hear it now—were they IRS or something? Maybe cops?
“Tell them it’ll be a minute.” She needed to add the rest of the dry ingredients first so she wouldn’t forget where she was.
As she dropped the salt into the enormous bowl on the stand mixer, someone came through the door.
“I can’t believe you kept us waiting,” a familiar male voice said.
“She’s big on playing games,” another joined in.
Fay was surprised by both voices, but the second one jarred her. She felt her breath hitch, then set down the empty spoon. What were they doing back again?
When she turned, she saw her step-brother Bret and his best friend Austin Sparks standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “I told you to wait a minute, I’m not supposed to have people back here.” Besides, hair net. Ugh! Of course Austin would see her wearing one. It would give him an extra reason to make fun of her.
“We’re not technically in the kitchen. We’re at the threshold. And is that any way to greet your brother?” Bret asked.
“Or me? I know you can greet me far more nicely than that.” Austin was taller than her brother with light brown skin from the mix of his African American dad and Italian mom. Last time she’d seen him he’d been clean shaven, but now he wore a thinly-trimmed beard and mustache which somehow made his angular jaw look even better than before.
She glared at him as she moved away from the stand mixer and pulled off her hair net. She gave Bret a hug, intentionally snubbing the big jerk. “I’m glad to see you. What brings you both to town?” She gestured for them to move back so she could join them in the public area of the café.
Bret shifted out of the way, but Austin didn’t budge, making her put a hand on his shoulder and nudge him back so she wouldn’t have to push past him. Moron. Gorgeous, obnoxious, brilliant, funny moron.
“We’re moving back,” Austin said.
“You are? Both of you? Wh-why?” She got a hold of herself and gave him her steeliest gaze. “You’ve run through all of the snow bunnies and mountain biking girls at Gore Mountain? Maybe you hoped there would be more at Ruby Resort? Thought you’d drag Bret back too?”
His gaze cooled slightly. “Something like that.”
“Hey, I know you two get a kick out of insulting each other, but seriously, can’t you at least try to get along?” Bret asked. He and Austin had been best friends for years before Bret’s dad had married Fay’s mom when they had all been in eighth grade. It was a good thing Bret was so nice, or she would never have put up with his friend.
“I’ll be civil if he doesn’t tease me,” she vowed.
Austin smirked. “I don’t know if I can hold up my end of the bargain. She’s way too fun to tease. Her face grows pink and her eyes sparkle.” His gaze veered toward her hair.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Sparking with anger is not necessarily a good look.”
“Says you.” Despite his words, Austin backed behind the counter.
Deciding she had more important information to glean, Fay let it go as she poured them both some coffee. “So what’s this all about?”
“You’ll find out if you join us for dinner tonight,” Bret said. “Austin’s family is coming to Dad’s for a barbecue and we’ll tell everyone about it and answer questions all at once.”
Fay was going to make excuses—she had so many things to do and she turned down family dinners as a rule, but Austin piped up. “Unless you’re too busy to make time for your family. Your mom said she hasn’t seen you in weeks. Not since we were here last.”
Jerk, talking to my Mom behind my back. He always knew how to push her buttons. But he was right. It had been a while since she had made it for dinner or stopped by. She had spent more than enough time there with all the trips the two men had been making to town over the summer and hadn’t the patience for more—especially if she was going to be the subject of her mother’s full focus. A moment to consider the day’s plan was all she needed—she did have Hank on shift all evening and Maria was scheduled through the dinner rush. It wasn’t usually too busy on a Wednesday night, but taking an hour or two for dinner with her family was going to eat into her precious prep time. “Fine. I’ll be there, but I can’t stay all evening, I have things to do here.”
“We understand.” Austin took a sip of his coffee. “This is so good. Do you think we could each get a slice of peach pie too?”
“The coffee was free. The pie is going to cost you.”
“That’s okay, I’m celebrating, I’ll pay. You want some peach, or the apple?” he asked Bret.
“Apple all the way.”
Fay plated some for each of them, heating it and adding ice cream to Bret’s just to needle Austin. Their tug of war ran both directions, after all.
“Hey, I never said I was paying for à la mode,” Austin complained.
“That’s okay, the ice cream was my treat, because I know how much he likes it.”
“I like ice cream, too,” Austin said.
“I know.” Fay flashed a cheeky grin before turning to Maria to instruct her only to bill them for the pie. Maria nodded and murmured something shyly. Austin smirked in return; Fay pretended not to see. “What time is dinner tonight?”
“Six thirty. Don’t be late.” Bret pointed at her with his fork, before scooping up another bite of pie.
“You make the best peach pie on the planet,” Austin said.
Fay looked at him, surprised by the compliment. “You’re lucky you came in today. That’s the last of the fresh peaches for the season.” She’d had to beg them from a friend who had a very late-producing peach tree. She only made the pie when it was in season because fresh was her byword.
“Apparently I’m extra lucky when it comes to you.” He shot her the knowing grin that drove her completely nuts. It made her think about that day.
In defense, she started backing away—she did have a lot to do. “Enjoy your pie, if I’m leaving here for dinner, I need to get some things done. Make sure you leave Maria a nice tip.”
Austin’s chuckle followed Fay back into the kitchen. Why did he always get under her skin? She took two deep breaths, then donned her hair net again. She needed to get this cookie dough mixed and chilling so she could start on desserts for the evening customers.