Kayleigh's café is in serious trouble. The new chain across the street has threatened to put her out of business, and it's all she can think about. That is until a sexy stranger walks in for coffee one afternoon.
Dean never expected the competition to be so hot. When he stops by Kayleigh's café undercover, he falls hard for the small business owner. Keeping his true identity a secret, he charms the alluring woman into having a fiery fling. But when deep, mutual feelings blossom, Dean finds himself faced with the inevitable: he must tell the truth or walk away.
Kayleigh couldn’t believe the lunch hour was already over. At its peak, not even half of the tables were occupied, and only a few people ordered to-go. She didn’t like using the term “bad,” but if she was going to be honest with herself, yeah, it was a bad turnout for a Wednesday. And if she was going to be really honest with herself, the steady decline was getting increasingly worse.
It wasn’t the food, and it wasn’t the coffee. People still praised her eats and drinks. The slow and agonizing draining of profit didn’t have so much to do with the café’s quality. Instead, it had everything to do with that damned new store that had opened across the street: Kent’s Nursery.
Kayleigh grabbed a broom from the utility closet and began sweeping the hardwood floors. The boards creaked under her feet in that musical way that was characteristic of old houses. This specific old-house-turned-café served as both her business and her home. When on the first floor, she put on the commercial face of Miss Hughes, proud owner of Winding Brook Corner Café. But up on the second floor, she could kick off her shoes and let down her curly, waist-length blonde hair. Up there, as soon as she reached top of the squeaky wooden stairs she loved so much, she could be just plain Kayleigh—that is, if she didn’t go out of business and have to sell the place first.
That familiar dark cloud of fear placed a shadow over her mood and threatened to make her depressed again. Refusing to give in, she focused on tidying up the dining area of the café. She avoided looking out the window, didn’t even want to chance taking an accidental glance at that accursed new chain that had started taking her customers. Damn you, Kent’s Nursery.
What kind of nursery had a café in it, anyhow? Wasn’t a nursery supposed to primarily sell plants? Cheaper prices indeed. Well, they could take the cheapskates. The folks of Winding Brook, Colorado who actually appreciated a good, home-cooked meal and premium coffee—they would stay by her side. Wouldn’t they?
“Hey, cuz, you’re doing it again,” said a reproachful feminine voice behind her.
She turned to face the end of the wooden bar, where her cousin Samantha (“Sammy,” as she now liked to be called), stood counting the cash in the cash register. The twenty-one year old raised a finely sculpted eyebrow, wisps of her fire-engine-red bob resting against her cheeks. Kayleigh blushed, hating the tell-tale heat on her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I still don’t understand why a nursery has a café in it.”
“Hey, I know some retail stores in Colorado Springs that are starting to put them in. People gotta have their coffee.”
“I guess,” Kayleigh grumbled.
“Really, though. You don’t have to get mad. It does no good. Besides, it attracts bad vibes.”
“Sammy, I love you, but I don’t need your New Age advice right now. And it isn’t the same for you. When you graduate from college, you’re going to move on and do other things. This place is my entire life.”
“Hmm. That might be true. But think of this when you get pissed off: you look so much prettier when you’re happy. Gotta look good for your man.”
“Are you trying to change the subject?”
“Umm, not that I don’t love dwelling on gloom and doom, but yes. How is your new boy-toy by the way?”
“Who else, yeah.” Kayleigh looked down, trying to figure out how to let Sammy down gently. Classic Jazz music streamed through the café’s stereo’s speakers. “So I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Mark’s nice enough. But I don’t think it’ll work out.”
“Aww, but you only went out on one date!” She leaned over the cash register, her glossy lips in a pout. “I thought you said you liked him!”
“No, I said I like his manners. He opened the door for me, pulled my chair out at the restaurant, that kind of thing. But he called me last night and it didn’t go so well.”
“Uh-oh.” She rolled her eyes. “Here we go. What happened now, Mistress Fault-finder?”
“Seriously, listen. It started out fine, but he kept talking about his ex.” Sammy arched an eyebrow and opened her mouth to speak, but Kayleigh held up a hand and continued, “I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he wouldn’t quit. At one point even he got emotional about it. Said he didn’t want to get burned this time with me, like we were already an item or something. I don’t know.”
“Seriously?” Sammy’s blue eyes went wide. “All that after one date? That’s not like him. Course, I’ve never dated him, so it could be like him. What did you say?”
Kayleigh shrugged. “I just told him I was getting another call and that I’d call him back. A tiny white lie’s not that bad, right? And I didn’t call him back.” She grimaced. “Am I a horrible person?”
“He just seemed so fragile.”
“Okay, fine. Should’ve warned you about the ex. I did know that he was having a rough time but I figured you might help him get his mind off it, and he’d help you get your mind off of things-that-shall-not-be-named.”
“That was sweet of you, Sammy, but I’m just not good at being set up. Never have been.”
“Hey. Set up or not, don’t you think you’re being a little, teeny bit picky? I mean, it was only one bad phone call.”
Kayleigh leaned down and swept the floor debris into the dustpan, considering her cousin’s words before finally shaking her head. “No, it was more than that. We just didn’t click. I’m business-minded. He didn’t seem to know what he wanted out of life. I want to find someone who has ambition, like me. Your college boys barely know who they are yet.”
Sammy tossed her hair back from her face. “Ah, yes. Here we go with the old timer, thirty-year-old talk.” She blew a bubble with her chewing gum and then popped it. “I swear, nobody’s ever good enough for you. Too young. Too old. Not ‘ambitious’ enough. Blah. Just give me a guy who can laugh and is decent in bed, and I’m a happy camper.”
Kayleigh laughed and dumped the dustpan’s contents in the trash bin. “That’s why you’re in a relationship and I’m not. I want more than giggling and screwing. It’s fun while it lasts, but at my age, the guys I’m interested in are all married with kids. If they aren’t, there’s bound to be something wrong with them.”
“Has it occurred to you that maybe they’re thinking there’s something wrong with you? Hmm?”
“Hey.” Kayleigh defensively raised a finger. “Granny would say I’m a specimen of perfection, getting along without a man. Men need us, Sammy. We don’t need them.”
“Whatever you say. I still prefer to have one around.”
Kayleigh sighed. Sammy had a point. It had been a while since she’d really been with a man. And though she could survive the day without one, she did miss it—the touch of a masculine hand on her soft body, the mutual pleasure she got from turning a man on who then craved to please her in return. Much more fun than switching on her vibrator. She was a normal, healthy female with a functioning set of hormones, after all. If only she could just turn her body off like a sex toy.
“I’m sorry, Sammy.” She reached for her neck to massage one of her constant sore spots. “I didn’t mean to kill the mood. I know you were just trying to help.”
“Hey, no problem. I get it. You’re like super-feminist woman, and I am the lowly man-starved weakling.” Sammy smiled sweetly, and Kayleigh gave her a look. “But don’t worry,” Sammy continued, “I’m still not giving up on you. I’ll find you a good one. I consider it my civic duty. In the meantime, you work on not finding something wrong with every man on the planet before he even has a chance to prove himself. Just sayin’.” She slid her checkered work apron over her head and tossed it on the counter, revealing a tiny pink T-shirt and shorts that were borderline too short for work. “Smoke break.”
“You know you should quit, right?”
“No, really? I thought they were healthy.”
“Mmm hmm. Just sayin’.”
Sammy gave her a reproachful look then tossed her gum in the trash. When she stepped outside, the doorbell clanged overhead, and Kayleigh looked up just long enough to catch a glimpse of the full parking lot at Kent’s Nursery. Then the door eased shut with a click, removing her competition from her sight. She gripped the broom handle until her knuckles turned white.
Her cousin was being sweet by trying to help her in the man department, but Kayleigh didn’t have time to date right now anyway. She had a business to run. A business to save. And a livelihood to protect in the process.
* * * * *
Dean was proud of his growing nursery like a good parent would be proud of raising a respectable child. The building buzzed with chatter from customers, some picking through fragrant herbs for their kitchen gardens, others deciding what artisan pots they might want to put on display on their porches. A chorus of the highest quality of wind-chimes provided a simple, predictable song that relaxed the store’s patrons and, most importantly of all, pleased Dean.
As he walked down the aisles of cacti, past the lilies, and under the little arch with creeping vines, he wrote down a few constructive criticism notes on his Moleskin pad for the store manager to consider. Stepping onto a curving stone walkway, he almost slipped on a puddle of water that had collected from a large pot nearby. He scribbled down another note. Coming to the end of the curving path, he slowed down and nodded in greeting at a couple of older women. The phrase that came to his mind upon seeing them was “grandmothers in denial.” Their heavily made up eyes sparkled behind their horn-rimmed orange and purple sunglasses.
“Hi, honey,” one said to him. Her closely cropped hair had been bleached to the point of no return. “Need any help finding something, cutie?”
“Do you see any other cuties around? Because I sure as hell don’t.”
Frowning, he scanned their low-cut blouses for any sort of store nametag. No way. If Juan actually hired these two… Relief flooded him when he didn’t find any hint of employment. Then he met the bleach blonde’s daring stare with one of his own.
“You don’t work here,” he said.
“No, of course we don’t,” said the other woman, a faux violet/brunette. Her gaudy plum lipstick had found its way onto the tips of her top front teeth. “But we’d love to be the ones you’re looking for.”
She nudged the first, and they both erupted in a tittering fit of laughter. They were like a couple of teenagers. Must have had one too many mimosas at lunch. Dean grinned—the grin he saved especially for women when he wanted something. To top it off, he turned his head, letting a few strands of his jet black hair fall out of his short ponytail.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m not local. Just passing through, actually.” Now for the enthusiastic marketing voice. “Isn’t this a fantastic store? We’ve got one in Colorado Springs, where I’m from.”
Lady number one smiled like she’d just won a prize. “Oh, we love it. We stop by at least once a week. Always find something we can’t live without.” She looked him up and down, taking in his lanky frame: long legged blue-jeans, then up to his gray cotton T-shirt that hugged his chest. “So, what’s the pen and pad for, stranger? Jotting down gift ideas for your girlfriend?”
He grinned. “No girlfriend. Just notes for me.”
“Well, if you decide to stick around, Mr. Crystal Blue Eyes, don’t be a stranger. Like I said, we stop by here at least once a week. And if you don’t want to wait…”
She reached into a bling-covered purse and pulled out a heavily perfumed beauty consultant card. He reluctantly took it from her, glanced at its frou-frou font and lipstick clipart then nodded in thanks.
“Appreciate it, ladies,” he said. “Charmed to share this moment. Another reason I love shopping here—you never know what beautiful people you might meet.”
As soon as they’d moved on, their heads held high in triumph, he released a silent laugh through his nose and shook his head. The things he did for his company. Now that that amusing little distraction was out of the way, it was time to check on his favorite spot in this particular nursery.
The wild rosebush was what had originally won him over when considering purchasing this property. It had called to him, the way it decorated that rickety fence on the two acres of abandoned land like a ruby in an ashtray. The condemned house in front of it had nearly fallen over at the touch; it had been easy enough to dispose of. But he’d requested the pink rosebush remain, and he’d built the store around it. It served as the unique landmark of this particular branch. All of the current branches had some sort of local color, a one-of-a-kind characteristic, something on each piece land that he saved to become part of the stores.
He’d opened six branches of his store so far, all in Colorado. There were three more opening later this year in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Dean Henry Kent considered that a success at thirty-five, especially when one considered the fact that he’d followed his dream on his own, worked his ass off, and gotten the bank loans by himself. Not one bit of help had come from his father, the almighty George Joshua Kent. Not one bit of recognition, either. Maybe when Dean had stores in all fifty states, he’d send his old man a post card. Maybe his father would stop thinking he was a “fuck-up.” Then again, he didn’t really care what George thought.
Best not to dwell. He didn’t get where he was today by sitting around being a martyr. As he leaned in, he inhaled the sweet, familiar scent of one of the red roses on the thorny green bush. The silky petals lightly touched the side of his nose, and he was taken back to romantic nights with old girlfriends. The rose’s scent conjured flittering thoughts of wanton lips parting, full breasts rising and falling to a slow, primal rhythm, and the rush of sweet release that he had currently been too long without.
He looked down at the beauty consultant card in his hand. If he really wanted some badly enough, “Mrs. Kitty Everett” would be more than happy to oblige, he imagined with a little shiver of disgust.
“What’s going on, boss?”
Dean looked up into the warm brown eyes of Juan Ortega, lifelong friend, and manager of the Winding Brook, Colorado, branch of Kent’s Nursery. “Hey, Juan. Just about done taking some notes for you.”
“What’s that you got there?”
Dean handed him Kitty’s card, and delight danced across his round face. “Oh, she got you too, eh? She gave one to me. I had Maria buy some stuff from her, you know, for herself and the girls, but now she won’t stop calling the house.”
“Well, I’m not so sure she only wanted to sell me beauty products. I think Kitty’s looking for a little action.”
“Oh, daaang.” He made a face. “You that desperate, bro?”
“I said Kitty’s looking for action, not me.”
Juan tried handing him back the card, but Dean held up his hand. The manager grinned and shoved the card into his pocket. Dean led him away from the rosebush as he discussed the slight improvements he wanted for the store. They made their way to the café up front and sat down. Four outdoor patio sets were available where customers could sit and eat—a little sly marketing strategy for the furniture. Only one person was currently dining at a table beneath a festive red patio umbrella: a gray-haired gentleman, his sandwich half-eaten. He browsed a gardening magazine, taking sips of his coffee in between turning the pages.
Dean frowned and leaned in closer to Juan to speak in a hushed voice, “Are you still having the customers of the café fill out a satisfaction card?”
“Yep, exactly like you said. And business has picked up a little since we started running the specials. But customers still unanimously give us ‘average’ or ‘good’ ratings, not ‘excellent.’ They all say the price is what they like best. I’ve heard folks say the café across the street is better quality, but it could just be rumors or certain people’s opinions.”
“Have you been over there?”
“Not yet. You work me like a slave driver. When would I have a chance to have a life?” When Dean gave him an unamused look at his little joke, Juan held up his hands. “Sorry. Back on track now. The café. Anything else you wanna know?”
“Rumors, huh? Or select opinions?”
“Hmm.” Dean narrowed his eyes. Pushing away from the table, he stood, staring at the old man sitting nearby. “I’ll be right back.”
Approaching the gentleman, he straightened his posture and put on his best non-threatening demeanor. When he got close enough to touch, the man looked up and lifted his scraggly gray eyebrows.
“Can I help ya, sir?” the man asked, his hands trembling slightly from age as he lowered his magazine.
“Yes, actually, you can,” Dean said. “I hope you don’t mind my stopping by but I noticed you were drinking some of the coffee here. I was wondering if I should get some for myself. Is it good?”
“Oh, sure, it’s fine. Just a dollar, too. That’s what I like. Cheap. Can’t afford shit with all the medicine I’m on nowadays.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. So, would you say the coffee is tasty as well as cheap? I’m looking for a good, strong brew with unique flavor.”
“Oh, it’s okay. Probably not the most robust here, but decent.”
“It doesn’t stand out?”
“Nah, but it ain’t bad. Now if you’re lookin’ for a treat, that coffee Kayleigh’s got over across the street’s real good, probably better’n this coffee. But if you want something good and cheap to warm your belly, this here’s fine.”
“I see.” His smile didn’t touch his eyes this time. “Thanks.”
He looked out through the sliding glass doors. That quaint little Winding Brook Corner Café sat across the street, mocking him. Everything else about his nursery was running great. Sales were more than satisfactory in every department of this branch except for his little café idea. Though the ones in his other stores weren’t banking, they were all doing better than this one.
Dean Henry Kent didn’t like coming in second place at anything, including the coffee in his café. The people who chose Winding Brook Corner Café instead of his were customers lost. It was time to make an appearance at this “Kayleigh’s” place across the street, incognito of course, to see what he was up against.