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On most days, customers filling every seat at Tea Leaves and Coffee Beans thrilled Raine Hanover. Today, the eighth of September, wasn’t one of those days. She leaned her head to the right and then to the left, trying to relieve the tension in her neck, spine, and shoulders.
The stretching didn’t help. Her muscles tightened more.
She’d been running nonstop since she unlocked the doors at twenty-three minutes after six.
Twenty-three minutes late.
Raine blew out a breath. That was better than releasing a long, drawn-out sigh and filling her coffee shop with way too much carbon dioxide.
She was trying. Okay, maybe not as hard as she should, but today was supposed to be her day off. The same as Saturday. And the Wednesday before that.
Raine had worked thirteen days in a row. Not that she was counting.
She placed a hazelnut latte on the counter. “Beth.”
Okay, Raine was totally counting.
She returned to the espresso machine to prepare the next order—a double espresso for Mrs. Jones, who must be taking the drink to her husband, who owned the hardware store. Mrs. Jones’s favorite beverage was a chai latte, and she came in twice a week for them, sometimes three times.
Raine couldn’t afford to let customer service and satisfaction slip. Making sure Tea Leaves and Coffee Beans remained profitable was her top priority.
But she was tired.
Bone-weary, caffeine-no-longer-helped, running-on-fumes tired.
Nope, and she wouldn’t allow herself to get that way.
The coffee shop was her lifeline—her everything.
No pets, plants, parents, or partner.
Only this place.
It was more than enough.
Suck it up.
That was what she needed to do.
Small business owners worked long hours. She was used to that. The difference this time was the staffing issues. They were the worst they’d ever been. But unfortunately, she was stuck.
If Raine could get rid of Heather, a part-time employee who was supposed to open this morning, she would. She’d dreamed about letting Heather go most nights for the past two weeks. Nightmares, however, fluctuated with pleasant dreams, leaving Raine even more tired. Her subconscious must be working overtime.
But Raine couldn’t fire the woman.
At least not when she was down two employees and had been for months. Now that Emmett was out of her life and her heart for good this time, she no longer had a backup—her person—to count on. Maybe not having someone to rely upon made her current situation appear worse, but even if Emmett was around, she would still need extra help.
On the twenty-second of August, Timmy, who’d worked there from day one, had started classes at Summit Ridge University, located in the next town over from Silver Falls, so his availability had lessened, more than either of them expected. She missed seeing what color his hair was each week—sometimes day.
Who was she kidding?
What she really missed was his eagerness to work any shift he could, but school came first. They both agreed upon that. He’d worked too hard during his years attending community college part-time so he could transfer and finish his degree full-time at the university. Even if his absence left her in a world of hurt and needing to hire two or three more baristas. But finding people who wanted to work was proving to be…difficult.
Beth Owen, the owner of the Falls Café a block away, picked up her drink. She peered over the counter. “Just you today?”
“Heather called out.” Raine prided herself on not adding again. She brushed a stray strand of hair from her face with her forearm. Chopping off her hair in a moment of weakness had been a bad idea—too short for a ponytail now. “Sorry, it took so long.”
“Don’t apologize.” Beth took a sip. “Good help is hard to find.”
“Try impossible.” Raine hadn’t yet sipped any coffee, which must be lukewarm in her cup by now. Granted, she could refill it. But the availability wasn’t the issue. Time was. And she wasn’t in the best mood without a cup first thing in the morning. “I thought hiring staff when I first opened would be hard. Four years later, I wish I could go back to that time when I turned applicants away. Too bad I can’t clone Timmy…”
Beth nodded with a gaze full of understanding. “Silver Falls has grown so much. The community’s great, but let’s not kid ourselves. No state income tax in Washington is one of the draws, and many want to escape bigger cities. But with new businesses opening here and in Summit Ridge, people have more choices for jobs.”
“I should be happy for the economic boom, but it’s—”
“Hard on employers.”
So hard. “I spoke to Mr. Bell, the career counselor at the high school, about hiring a few students for weekend shifts, but I also need others here during the week. I placed an ad on Summit Ridge University’s job website. Students would have to commute, so I upped the pay.”
“The price of desperation. When we needed a new dishwasher, it took us weeks, but we finally hired someone, and it was for more than we paid the last person. You’ll find someone.”
Raine crossed her fingers behind her back. If an applicant was breathing and showed up on time, they had a job.
“I take it you won’t be attending the First Avenue Business Association meeting that starts…” Beth glanced at her phone “…in five minutes.”
“Unfortunately, no.” Raine would be more worried if she hadn’t coordinated the Valentine event earlier this year.
“Do you need me to take anything over for you?” Beth asked.
Anything meant the nectar of First Avenue aka Raine’s special “Silver Falls” coffee blend. She concocted that in honor of the town. “Callie picked up the carafes ten minutes ago.”
The relief in Beth’s voice brought a much-needed smile to Raine’s face. She loved pleasing customers and friends. Beth counted as both.
“We were disappointed when you missed last month.” Beth raised her cup. “That’s why I stopped by for this. In case it happened again.”
Raine hadn’t had time to deliver coffee to the meeting last month. This morning, she’d called Callie on her way to work. “I plan on attending next month.”
If the stars and moon aligned.
She hoped they did.
The association would discuss the annual Holiday Window Decorating Contest at the October meeting. The Christmas windows brought tourists to town and publicity to the storefronts along First Avenue. The definition of a big deal. But the association kept making new rules and coming up with ridiculous fines for businesses, which annoyed her and other business owners. The increase in revenue was nice, but the pressure from the events made Raine question her membership. She wanted to be there to speak up if new regulations were to be voted upon. Few went against Margot Winslow and the other long-time association members, but the last round of fines issued during July’s Summer Fair had been too much.
She smiled at Beth. “Hope the meeting goes well.”
“See you around.” Beth headed toward the exit.
Raine finished preparing the drink and set it on the counter. “Mrs. Jones.”
Raine peered into the display case to fill the next order. She grabbed a blueberry muffin—the last one—and placed it on a plate.
Inventory was low.
Her stomach clenched.
Typical for this time of day, but she had no one to send across the street to Lawson’s Bakery for refills. Taryn, the owner, would be at the meeting, and her staff wouldn’t have time to deliver if Raine called in an order.
Customers would have to order something else or walk across the street to Lawson’s.
It is what it is had become Raine’s catchphrase.
Be careful what you wish for was a close second.
She poured a cup of French roast and set it next to the muffin. “Mr. Hurley.”
She wiped her hands on the front of her apron and made a cappuccino. As her fingers touched a knob on the espresso machine, she let them linger.
Love this place.
Despite the staffing issues, Raine loved the business she’d created, pouring her heart, soul, and inheritance into Tea Leaves and Coffee Beans after working half her life for every type of coffee shop imaginable, from big franchises to mom-and-pop shops. She’d left Seattle and moved to Silver Falls to make her dream come true.
When she met the man she thought she’d marry, her future had been so clear in her mind. It was a good one. She’d not only gotten a boyfriend but also found a new family with his. Until Emmett, who’d grown up in Silver Falls, decided small-town life wasn’t for him in January. They’d dated long distance. Broke up in February. Tried a long-distance relationship again. Then in April, he’d decided Raine wasn’t for him either. They’d broken up for good that time.
Still worth it.
Even on days like today when things didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, Raine kept telling herself that.
All she had to do was keep going.
She would find more reliable employees like Timmy. The shop would continue to thrive. She just knew it.
The only question was…how long would that take?
Forget dead week. The Scandinavian Studies department had never been this quiet in the lead-up to finals. Assistant Professor Keaton Andrews even left the door to his office open when it wasn’t office hours. Might as well enjoy the peace until the students arrived in a couple of weeks.
Living on the edge.
He grinned, even though the only edge in his life was on his desk where he sat. Sometimes pens fell off when he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings, which wasn’t often. Callie, his younger sister, called him the brainy professor. That was better than an absent-minded one.
The syllabus for Introduction to Norwegian Folklore filled his computer screen.
The class always received stellar reviews, but he’d spent the summer revamping the content. He wanted students to fall in love with the subject the way he had as a college freshman. That meant ensuring the lessons ignited a fire inside the young women and men who’d registered for the class. Which was why he was working so hard to make the curriculum as close to perfect as he could.
Overachievers R Us.
A family trait except for the baby of the family, Callie, who’d followed her heart, and she was by far the happiest of them all. Though Garrett had slowed down, too, and had no complaints.
Keaton might want to rethink his goal. Trying to capture his entire class roster was slightly ambitious. A more reasonable goal should be one.
If one student discovered a new passion, Keaton would be satisfied. Now to make the class better. He had time to reach perfection or close to it.
Colleges with semesters were in session. Keaton’s university followed the quarter system. That meant courses didn’t begin until September 26th, less than three weeks from now.
He had a feeling the entire fall quarter would drag.
Who was he kidding?
Keaton wanted classes to be over with before they even began. Don’t get him wrong. He loved teaching, but after being on tenure track at an elite university in Los Angeles, his dream of becoming a full-fledged professor was about to come true. He’d submitted his dossier months ago. Now all he had to do was wait until the end of fall quarter for the official tenure announcement to be made.
Professor Keaton Andrews.
He tapped the tips of his leather shoes against the carpet under his desk. His body, however, remained ramrod straight. His posture as perfect as ever.
Anyone glancing into his office would assume he was hard at work, the quintessential professional—the way he’d acted since he stepped foot onto campus to fulfill his dream six years ago.
Nothing, however, would speed up the approval process, so he’d better get back to work.
Keaton focused on the timeline. It still wasn’t right.
The phone on his desk rang.
He startled, nearly knocking over his water bottle. No one outside the university used the landline number. He picked up the receiver. “Keaton Andrews, Scandinavian Studies.”
“Hi,” a friendly female voice greeted him. “It’s Lilia. Dean Fredricks would like to see you.”
That was…unexpected. But one didn’t keep a dean waiting. Keaton had learned that his second day there.
He jumped to his feet. “On my way.”
Keaton saved his file, straightened his bow tie, adjusted his suspenders, and ran his fingers through his hair. He considered putting on his jacket, but the building was warm enough with the temperatures in the low eighties. As much as students paid in tuition, one would think working air conditioners would be in every building. That wasn’t the case.
Three minutes later, he approached the dean’s assistant’s desk. “Should I go in?”
Lilia motioned to the office behind her. The door was ajar. “He’s waiting for you. When you’re finished, I want to see photos of Rex.”
“My sister sent me new ones.”
Thinking about Callie’s Lab mix brought back memories of the weeks Keaton had spent in Silver Falls, Washington, this summer. He’d attended Callie and Brandt’s wedding in July and stayed through mid-August to dog-sit his canine nephew while the newlyweds honeymooned.
He planned to return during winter break for the holidays. Nothing like a white Christmas in a quaint small town where everyone knew his name.
“Rex gets cuter every day.” Not that Keaton was biased. The dog was the best. “I’m his favorite uncle. Not even Garrett will replace me.”
Garrett, his middle brother, lived in Silver Falls now.
Lilia tsked. “Sounds like you need your own dog.”
Callie had mentioned the same thing. Her aunt-in-law Margot, however, hinted Keaton needed a girlfriend.
Both were wrong.
Keaton dated occasionally. But his focus was his career. At least until the official tenure announcement came out. “Maybe for Christmas.”
A way to celebrate the holidays and tenure.
Njord or Magni might be a good name for a Norwegian Elkhound. Forget one of those tiny, ankle-biter types. He wanted a dog who could keep up with him during walks and hikes.
“You know.” A mischievous expression formed on Lilia’s face. “Halloween’s next month. You could get a dog costume and pass out candy with him or her in a doggy costume to the trick-or-treaters.”
A pet came after tenure. He wasn’t changing his plans. But Lilia didn’t need to know that. “Kids don’t come to my apartment building so I stopped buying candy.”
“That’s an excuse. Two months before Christmas wouldn’t make a difference.”
Except Keaton had planned everything out. He didn’t mess with those plans whether they were written down or in his head. Change wasn’t a four-letter word, but it might as well be. Adaptability wasn’t a strength, and why academia suited his personality perfectly. “Better not keep the big man waiting.”
With a wide smile on his face, Keaton entered the elegant office with wood-paneled walls, bookcases, a large walnut desk, framed Ivy League diplomas on the walls, and large windows with a view of the quad below.
Someday, all the best and the brightest minds who attended the university would know Keaton’s name when he became a dean.
Keaton had them.
Warmth balled in his chest. He couldn’t wait for that day to come.
But first tenure and then the rest of his dream would follow.
Dean Fredricks sat behind a massive desk. The lines on his face appeared deeper than usual. He must be training for another marathon. The man enjoyed running with students and did at least two days a week. “Have a seat.”
Keaton sat in one of the two leather chairs nearest him. The dean was a man of few words unless standing behind a podium in a lecture hall, so Keaton remained quiet.
“The university’s acceptance rate reached historic lows this past spring.” Dean Fredricks adjusted his glasses. “Unfortunately, our yield of attendees was far lower than expected. What happens when tier-one universities fight for the same students. We hoped to fill spots off the waitlist, but we have standards to maintain.”
Keaton rubbed his palms over his pants. He didn’t know why the dean was telling him this. Unless they’d decided to announce tenure positions early.
He sat taller, placing his hands on his knees so they wouldn’t bounce. That had to be the reason, right?
He tried not to smile too widely, given the context of the conversation. Rumors of budget cuts had circulated since spring. The athletic department seemed the likeliest place for cutbacks.
“There’s no easy way to say this.” The dean’s voice dropped an octave. The man brushed his hand through his thinning hair.
A shiver ran along Keaton’s spine. That didn’t sound like he would be delivering good news. “What?”
“Your department’s being cut.”
Keaton’s jaw dropped. The air whooshed from his lungs. His fingers dug into the chair’s leather. The room spun. His vision blurred, and he forced himself to breathe.
“Cut?” The word sounded breathless. The way he felt.
“Some courses will be absorbed into other departments. Others will be canceled.” Dean Fredricks stared at his desk. “This must be a shock.”
No words. Keaton, who had never been at a loss for what to say, was speechless. He forced himself to nod.
“Tenured professors have been offered the opportunity to move into different departments, but other contracts are canceled, effective immediately.”
The hits kept coming. Did Professor Duncan and everyone he’d worked with know? Keaton had seen most this morning when he arrived, and then the department had cleared out. They had to have known what was coming, yet none had warned him. A simple heads-up or heard another rumor would have prepared him.
Instead, he’d been blindsided.
Keaton’s eyelids burned. His chest tightened, the spot where his heart should be aching.
He knew the answer, but his father had taught him to fully understand a situation before jumping to conclusions.
Keaton cleared his throat. “Including mine?”
His stomach roiled. He thought he might throw up.
Keaton had worked so hard. He couldn’t walk away without a fight. “I’ve done everything required of me. For six years. My performance reviews. Publishing more than required. Top course surveys from students.”
The dean’s gaze finally met Keaton’s. “There is no longer a department or a position at this university for you, so tenure is no longer possible. This isn’t personal.”
Yes, it is. “Working at this university is my life.”
My dream. And it was going down in flames.
He forced himself to breathe, but filling his lungs with air took more effort than it should.
“You’ll receive recommendations and help in locating a new position.” The dean’s matter-of-fact tone bristled. “I have no doubt you’ll land a choice position by winter.”
“Winter?” Keaton stiffened. “Don’t I have a year to find another…”
“You only get a terminal year if you’re denied tenure.”
But he was denied it. Just not officially. “My courses this quarter…”
“Will be taught by someone else.”
Most likely Professor Larsen, tenured and overbearing. The students hated the way he droned on about his own family’s Norwegian history. And all Keaton’s work this summer had been…
His shoulders slumped, but an instant later, he straightened. He needed to remain strong until he was alone.
“The decision to cut your department has been made and is effective immediately,” Dean Fredricks continued as if he were talking about using cream-colored copier paper instead of white. “Of course, you’ll receive a severance package.”
Of course. Keaton nearly laughed. Stuff like this happened to other people, not an Andrews. His family were winners. They didn’t lose or fail or get fired. Even Callie had won nine months ago. “Is there an appeal process?”
He would speak with his father and brother. They were lawyers. Expensive ones in a different field, but they had contacts.
“The less fuss you make the better your chances…elsewhere.” The dean’s underlying threat brought a chill, bone-deep, followed by goose bumps.
For years, Keaton had looked up to the man. Now, all he wanted to do was get away from him. But he stood his ground, reining in his emotions. No losing control. His livelihood was at stake. “Anything else?”
“HR will speak with you shortly. You should pack up your office.”
Keaton’s hands balled. He pressed his lips together to keep from saying something he would regret and marched out of the office as if he were setting off to war—outnumbered without a clear strategy on how to win.
He passed Lilia’s desk and kept going. He couldn’t stop to show her Rex. Not now.
“Keaton,” she called out.
Not glancing back—he couldn’t—Keaton trudged to his office as if wading through wet cement. He kept going, even though his insides trembled, and the word “failure” echoed in his brain.
His gaze focused on the carpet. As far as he could tell, no one else was in the hallway.
Thank goodness. But that begged a question. More than one.
Which colleagues had been told the news? Offered a new job in another department or school? Fired like him? Who was avoiding him because he was out?
The last question burned the most.
His footsteps echoed.
Keaton undid his bow tie and the top button of his dress shirt. He rolled up his sleeves. Appearances no longer mattered. He’d dressed the part—bought tweed even—and what had it gotten him?
All his hard work had been for nothing.
He stormed into his office and slammed the door behind him. Framed diplomas rattled against the wall. He didn’t care.
The office wasn’t much—large enough to hold office hours with a small study group if need be—but it had been his.
Keaton ran his fingertips along the edge of a bookshelf, one of three in the office. The desk, chairs, and bookcases weren’t his. But everything that mattered to him was on the shelves and in the drawers.
Books, research, his life.
He rubbed his eyes.
Keaton pulled out a phone and typed.
Me: Met with the dean.
Me: My department’s been cut.
Me: Contract canceled.
Me: No tenure and no job.
Me: Dad and Garrett, do I have any legal recourse?
Keaton hit send. The messages would go to their family group chat. Between two lawyers, two doctors, a techie brother-in-law, a baker sister-in-law, and a dog-loving sister, who owned her own business, they would figure this out.
His family had never let him down.
They wouldn’t this time.
End of Excerpt