Series: Echo Ridge Romances #3
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 3/09/2018
Contributors: Heather Tullis
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Maria never expected to fall in love with a man she’d never met, but she can’t wait to get to her laptop every night to chat with Bobwhite67. She would be happy to focus on getting to know him better, but her two jobs and two sons keep her ridiculously busy. Then there’s her ex-husband’s bookie, who’s impatiently waiting for the last couple payments on his debt.
Bret can't understand why Maria puts up a wall between them, but when he realizes that she's the woman he's been messaging online, he's determined to make her change her opinion of him.
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Over the last month, Maria had begun to fall in love with a man she’d never met.
The cursor flashed on the laptop screen and Maria stared at its blinking form, waiting for a response. She glanced back at the clock—she would have to leave for work at the café soon, but she craved a few more exchanges from the man on the other end who was not quite a stranger anymore. It was late spring and the ski resort had shut down, but the weather was still chilly outside, and frugal as she was, she kept the apartment at sixty-five degrees while the boys were in school, choosing to bundle up rather than pay extra for her utility bill.
She pulled the soft, llama-wool blanket her mother had brought her from her last visit to family in Peru up around her chin. Why had she ignored her mother’s advice, choosing to settle in up-state New York instead of in the south where it was warmer?
Bobwhite67: I’ve been wondering lately what I would take onto a deserted island if I could only take one thing. What would you take?
Snuggling deeper into the blanket, she considered the question. I would say my kids, if I could be sure they would be safe, because I can’t imagine living without them. But if it had to be just me without anyone else… A Walmart?
Bobwhite67: lol That *is* one thing. I was thinking more like a fishing pole or a multi-tool—something you could actually carry. I’m thinking I’d pick a multi-tool. With that, I could make other things to survive.
Zoomama: Well, if I have to pick something I could carry, I’d say a first aid kit because getting an infection in the tropics is supposed to be pretty dangerous. Yep, with plenty of Looney Tunes Band-Aids.
Bobwhite67: You can never have too many Looney Tunes Band-Aids. I like Bugs Bunny best, how about you?
Maria studied the computer screen, smiling at the easy way they joked and learned about each other. She had never thought she would connect with anyone online, but this guy—there was something about him. She lifted her hands and started typing.
Zoomama: I’m a Tweety Bird fan. Dodging the bad cat and coming out on top despite his size. *sigh* I just looked at the clock. Your break is probably over, and I need to go to job #1. Talk to you later.
She hit send and pushed away from the computer. Her car was on the fritz—again—so she would have to walk to work. Thank goodness for the woman next door, who would pick the boys up from daycare and put them to bed tonight while she was at the café. She had a full day of cleaning and errands behind her already, since she had enjoyed a day off from her other job as head housekeeper at The Emerald Inn Bed & Breakfast. She had recently inherited the position thanks to the previous head of housekeeping moving on to a different job. Maria enjoyed her job there, and the family atmosphere, but going from once or twice per week to full time at the B&B had made it hard to balance her life when her hours at Fay’s Café hadn’t been reduced.
She slid into a jacket, slung her small woven purse over her shoulders, and then covered up with a slicker before grabbing her keys and umbrella. A glance at the counter tempted her to sneak a treat, and she grabbed just one alfajor cookie before heading out the door. She would save the rest to enjoy with the boys, but she loved the creamy, buttery, smooth taste of home.
The walk may have been short, but the rain pelted against her umbrella and slicker, and splashed onto her shoes. She shivered as a car drove past and threw a small wave of filthy wetness onto the sidewalk. A few drops from the deluge speckled her walking shoes, which was more than enough for her. Why hadn’t she bagged her shoes and worn boots today instead? Oh yeah, her mind had been too much on Bobwhite67, the man she had met on a dating website, and she hadn’t thought to change out of the comfortable shoes she wore most days. They had been messaging back and forth for over a month now, and though she had been able to establish that he lived within convenient driving distance of the ski resort—which could mean up to an hour away—they had never met. Considering the way he had become such a big part of her life, she was starting to think that meeting was going to be necessary.
The heat of the Fay’s Café greeted her like an old friend. The black and white 1950’s decor and pen and ink drawings of people in period-appropriate attire adorned the place. She loved working here and the sense of community she had developed with not just her boss and co-workers, but also many of the regulars who ate there.
She reconsidered her love of community as she caught sight of the two men in the kitchen, frying up burgers. Fay’s Café was packed, so she couldn’t blame Fay for bringing in extra help—but she definitely hadn’t expected one of them to be Bret.
Maria shook the water off her umbrella at the door before bringing it inside, which gave her a moment to put on the smile she always wore at work.
Cami, a new hire, smiled with relief as she saw Maria, then finished adding a swirl of whipped cream to the super-thick shake she had just created. Fay, tattoos, gobs of gold jewelry, and bright purple hair, smiled at the woman and two young girls who stood ordering at the counter.
It was just another Tuesday afternoon.
Maria hung up her winter gear and grabbed an apron from the hook. “What happened to Dale?”
“He called in sick a couple hours ago, so Fay called us to work.” Austin, Fay’s new husband said.
“It takes two of you to fill Dale’s shoes?” Maria asked.
“What can I say, Bret here is barely any help at all.” Austin flashed his best friend and business partner a grin. As far as Maria had been able to tell, they had been friends since elementary school and despite going to different universities and taking jobs in different parts of the state for years, they hadn’t grown apart. For Fay’s sake, she was glad their new ski and mountain bike shop was doing well.
“He likes to think he’s the useful one back here. I let him.” Bret wound a terry cloth towel a couple times and snapped the edge at Austin.
Seriously, Maria had no idea how the two of them managed to run the ski shop most of the time. They were great guys, in their own way. And handsome—handsome enough to make her tongue tie up in knots the first few times she met them. Especially Bret. Though she had to agree with Fay that her mulato husband looked great with the closely cropped beard and mustache, and super short hair, she preferred Bret’s longer brown waves and angled face. He still made her nervous even though he’d been a regular customer since moving back to town the previous fall. Not that she would ever admit it. “Your husband and brother are crazy,” Maria told Fay as she came up to join them.
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Fay smiled. She and Bret may have been step-siblings, but they were close. Her new marriage to Austin didn’t seem to be hurting her mood any, either.
Maria took over at the cash register as a couple of teens walked in, holding hands. The girl leaned against her boyfriend as they stared at the menu—even though they had both eaten there a dozen times already that year, and would order the exact same thing they always ordered.
When Maria’s boss, Bonnie, from the B&B walked in her blonde, bobbed helmet hair as stiff as ever, she worried that there was something wrong.
“Is there a problem?” Maria asked.
“No, Maria.” Bonnie smiled. “Everything is perfect, as usual after you clean. I just came down to pick up the order I called in a while ago. How do you manage working here after a full day working for us? You’re amazing.”
“Thanks.” Exhausted was more like it, but Maria just smiled as she reminded herself that she was only a couple months away from being free of her ex-husband’s debts to some less-than-savory people. His disappearance had put her in an awkward position. Soon she would finally be able to let her boys join soccer teams and take Karate if they wanted to. “I’ll check on that for you.”
She walked over to the window into the kitchen and asked, “How’s that phone order coming?”
“Nearly done. We’ve got this down.” Austin waved a flat hand through the air like it was a boat on the ocean.
“Good.” Maria turned around as the bell over the door dinged and at least a dozen teens came in, dripping on the checker-board tiled floor. Ay, ay, ay, where were they going to sit?
Maria started taking their orders at the cash register—eight shakes, two slices of Fay’s special chocolate cake, and three donuts. Thankfully a table cleared out by the time they finished ordering, and the kids crammed around it.
While she wrote down the last order, Bret came up and bagged the food for Bonnie. “It looks like you’re a little busy.”
“Yeah.” Maria bristled slightly that he thought she needed help, though she knew she shouldn’t. She shot him a smile she didn’t feel and moved to prepare the shakes on the other side of him. He had never been anything but friendly to her, and didn’t deserve a cold shoulder. She was still attracted to him, but he barely seemed to notice she was female, so she had put that feeling on the back burner. Way, way back.
Bret chatted with Bonnie about their respective businesses while Bonnie pulled out her money.
“Bret, your website is so beautiful. I told Roy we needed to update a year ago but he thought we were fine. Then I showed him your site—it’s so pretty. Who designed it for you?” Bonnie asked.
“I did,” Bret said. “Web design was my regular job until the shop really started to take off this winter. I still keep ours up to date.”
Bonnie popped one hip to the side and leaned in. “Are you interested in some extra work—since it’s your slow season and all. If Fay dragged you down here, I know you’re not hopping at the shop.”
“For the B&B?”
“What else is there in my life?” She laughed.
Bret looked intrigued. “I might be. We should sit down and see what you have in mind.”
“How does tomorrow morning at the B&B sound? Amos is making his orange rolls and I’ll be sure and save you some. I know how you like them.”
Maria winced when Bret agreed. First the diner, and now at the B&B. Well, maybe she could avoid him—there was plenty to do on the upper floors, away from the main office space where they would be meeting. She set the first cup into the shake mixer, which drowned out the rest of their conversation. She didn’t usually go for gringos, but there was something about Bret’s angular jaw and firm lips that always drew her attention. She knew feeling anything for him was beyond ridiculous, so why did she feel like a stuttering fool who was trying to learn English all over again every time she was in his presence?
Bret returned to the kitchen and Maria pushed him from her thoughts—she would need her full concentration if she was going to keep from messing up when she was already worn out from a morning “off” of trying to catch up with her normal life.
She managed to continue smiling although she wanted to scowl when she saw Lance come into the café. He pushed a hand truck ahead of him loaded with three boxes. “Hi, Maria, I haven’t seen you much lately.”
“I’ve been mostly working evenings the last few weeks.” And he was one reason that she had been glad of that. Not that there was anything wrong with Lance, he was a perfectly nice guy, really. His family owned a big farm with grass-fed beef and pastured pork and Fay bought all of their beef and pork products directly from them. Usually they delivered on Wednesday mornings, but either Lance had found out that Maria was working nights, or he was getting a head start on the weekly deliveries.
When he had gotten signatures from Fay and put away his hand truck, he returned, sliding into the open stool at the bar next to the register. “I can’t leave this place without a slice of Fay’s cake and a side of ice cream.”
And a chance to ask her out, no doubt.
Maria took his money and got his dessert from the cakes and pies in the display case. “Running a tad ahead of schedule for tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I decided to hit the restaurants in town tonight so I can spend a little extra time looking at a new tractor when I’m out and about tomorrow. They have a nice dealership this side of Albany.”
“That’s good planning. I wish you luck with your tractor shopping.”
“I should be back around dinnertime. You want to grab something to eat and maybe go see Roman Holiday at The Silver Screen? They’re doing a whole series of old movies right now.”
“I’ve heard about that, but I work tomorrow night. Thanks anyway.” She shot him a bright smile and took the empty cake plate to the sinks in the kitchen.
She dreamed of the day that Lance lost interest and looked elsewhere. He was a great guy, but as her gaze skittered to Bret, she realized that lately she had been comparing all of the men who asked her out to him—they all suffered by comparison.
Why couldn’t she just let it go?
The Emerald Inn was an old three-story with themed suites. Bret had never stayed there, but he knew a number of locals who had used it for the first night of their honeymoon before heading out for their real destination, and a lot of his ski shop customers that winter had indicated they were staying there. He had known Roy and Bonnie for as long as he could remember, since he grew up in this area
Bret had heard they were undergoing a renovation, and was curious about the changes. Their current website left a lot to be desired—if he were a potential guest, he would definitely want more details about the rooms, the ability to see what rooms were available, and to book online. He studied the building, as he entered, thinking of things they should highlight on the site.
The lobby showed the grandeur of the establishment, it too, had undergone a renovation since he’d seen it last. The owners had made it their home and raised their children in one area while hosting other families in the rest of the enormous structure.
He stopped at the front desk and rang the bell. Ingrid greeted him and realizing who he was, contacted Bonnie to meet him.
Bonnie hurried through a doorway. “You made it—Look Roy, Bret made it.”
Roy came in behind her. “I can see that.” He shook Bret’s hand. “It’s good to see you grew up.”
“Roy! Don’t be such a grump.”
“What? I can’t be glad the kid who toilet papered the house is grown up?”
Bonnie swats Roy’s arm. “Like you never toilet papered a house. Go in and see if Amos is done with those orange rolls. I promised Bret he could have some.”
Roy rubbed hands together. “With pleasure.”
Bonnie smiles fondly at him before he goes.
Bret held in a laugh, they hadn’t changed at all. “I’m glad you needed help during our slow season.” He was really glad that he would have some way to bring in money—even if it wasn’t a huge sum. While his and Austin’s shop had done surprisingly well, considering it had only been open for about six months, the ski season was now over and it was still too soggy for mountain bikers. Austin was still shipping gear to people further north, but that would stop soon, so they’d be depending on international shipping for the rest of the summer.
“It does seem serendipitous, doesn’t it?” She waved him down the hall and into the office. “I don’t know if you’ve seen our current website.”
“I checked it out last night.”
“Then you know how desperately we need something new. Now that Elise is finishing the final renovations and we have a beautiful gazebo out back, I want to push for more weddings and we need a total overhaul. I also have some ideas for new pages that I’d like to add.”
“Great. I have a couple suggestions myself.”
“Perfect. Let’s start with a tour. I’ll explain the changes to the B&B and then we can sit down with Roy and put our heads together.”
Bonnie showed him through the first floor, and then down to the basement to poke their heads into the room where Elise was currently working. Roy joined them as they headed upstairs so he could get a feel for the place.
Bret was surprised when he looked up at the sound of scurrying feet and caught sight of Maria moving from one room to another carrying a stack of folded towels. It didn’t seem to matter what she wore or did, he always felt a tug of attraction when he saw her. He wondered what she was doing here. “Does Maria work here?”
“Yes, Maria—we love Maria—she’s such a hard worker! She’s been acting as our head housekeeper for a while now. I keep hoping she’ll change her mind and decide to keep the position but I don’t know how she juggles this plus still working at the café.”
“With two young boys too. That’s crazy.” How had he missed that she was basically working two full-time jobs? Sure, he’d done it for several months when he and Austin started the shop, but neither of them had small children at home—and she was a single parent. He couldn’t help but be amazed, and frankly, a little concerned. How was she managing to raise those two boys and work both jobs without going crazy?
He wondered—not for the first time—what had happened to their father. He hadn’t asked her, though. Maria seemed a little skittish around him, and he hadn’t wanted to make her even more uncomfortable by pressing her with questions.
Bret dragged his attention back to Bonnie, who was discussing the amenities available in that room with Roy jumping in occasionally to add off-the-wall comments.
The whole visit took nearly two hours, between the tour and discussing ideas for the website—not to mention Amos’s amazing orange rolls. Bret agreed to architect the backside of the site in the next couple of days and send over a few links of design themes and the structure of what linked to what for them to review before they signed a contract.
Bret climbed into his beat-up Nissan and glanced up as movement in an upstairs window caught his eye. He caught a glimpse of Maria, looking out at him before she disappeared.
He wished she weren’t so quiet, and that he could read her easier.
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