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Natalie Gonzalez-Torres was not a Christmas person.
People assigning themselves holidays, as though it was a personality trait, was, in itself, silly. It’s not that she hated Christmas, she simply did not understand why it was treated like the Super Bowl of holidays, especially when Halloween, an infinitely better day, was right there. But she didn’t consider herself a sentimental person and, therefore, couldn’t care less about the most sentimental of all holidays.
Her youngest sister, Carla, liked to tease her that this preference proved she was part villain. Natalie didn’t care. It was one more thing her family didn’t understand about her, and to be fair, she didn’t necessarily always understand them either. She accepted being a Halloween person in a Christmas family.
It wasn’t that Natalie didn’t love her family. She wasn’t that much of a villain. It was just…her family was constantly together and up in each other’s business all year long, not just during the holidays. So unless she got stranded on a deserted island by herself, there wasn’t much of a reprieve from either the Gonzalez side nor the Torres side.
Case in point, her cousin Diego. He knew of her low tolerance for Christmas music, especially when it came on the direct heels of Halloween. Was nothing sacred anymore? It took an hour into her shift, and the discovery of absentmindedly humming a bar of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” for her to realize her cousin had snuck into the manager’s office and switched from their normal station of inoffensive coffeehouse music to one featuring Christmas tunes.
“Ugh, Diego. Seriously?”
The kid, who was a year out of high school with thick, shaggy hair, turned his head toward her with the appearance of complete innocence. “What?”
Natalie was not the owner of Pony Expresso, a small coffee shop located in the heart of the historic downtown area of Placerville, California. This title belonged to her Tío Enrique on the Gonzalez side. She was, however, the manager, giving her ultimate control over when sentimental sap, such as holiday tunes, was allowed to infiltrate the workspace. She was hoping to push this until at least the week before Christmas, because there was no reason to rush into this type of music commitment.
Fortunately, she had no problem telling off any employee, especially when they were young, cocky, and happened to be related to her. This was exactly what she did, making sure to chew Diego out in Spanish, so most of the customers would remain ignorant of the situation, as she relieved Crystal at the register for a break. Her cousin responded to her early morning music tirade by smirking and rolling his eyes as he returned to his work at the espresso machine. He was Tío Enrique’s son and had the unearned confidence of a kid who could get away with most things.
“Yes. What can I get for you?” she said, flipping to English, and raising her gaze to the customer standing there. She had to raise her eyes quite a bit more than she was used to as he was very tall. Natalie wasn’t sure if it was his large presence or something else, but she immediately felt overwhelmed by him. Perhaps he felt the same because the man froze, as if he was dumbfounded to find himself standing before her.
The spell broke when an older man in his twilight years, jabbed the younger one in his side. “Mason. Wake up. Whaddya want?”
“Oh. Uh… Sorry. Let me…uh, let me have the…” The man’s eyes darted across the chalkboard menu on the wall and appeared to be approaching a panic in his attempt to order something. “What do you recommend?”
Oh, for the love of—It wasn’t as if they had a very lengthy menu. Compared to places like the local Starbucks, their menu was quite small. And while there were times she enjoyed playing this guessing game with customers, today was not that day. She had a lot to do, there was a long line of customers, and there was still Christmas music playing. She wasn’t in the mood.
“I recommend that you know exactly what you want by the time you get to the register,” she heard herself saying before she could think better of it. Definitely not A+ customer service this morning. Her villain side showed up at the most inopportune times.
She expected the man, Mason, to demand to see a manager after her inappropriate and sarcastic comment. Instead, those hazel eyes connected with hers again and his lips lifted in amusement.
“Just get him the same as me. Small coffee, black. For Daniel,” the older man injected while pulling out his wallet to pay and shoving a few bills into the tip jar. “We also have a meeting with Enrique.” Then Daniel yanked the younger guy out of line who almost tripped and said some word she didn’t quite understand. The whole encounter was a lot more awkward and flustery than ordering coffee ever should be.
Natalie was never happier than when Crystal reappeared and retook her position at the register, letting Natalie return to her previous job of restocking the supplies and yelling to her uncle that he had visitors. She glanced up as her uncle came from the back, wearing slacks and a soft burgundy sweater, rather than his usual everyday uniform of track pants and long-sleeve T-shirts. The one thing ruining the professional businessman illusion was him lightly dusting pastry crumbs from his chest and mustache. He shook Daniel’s hand before doing the same with Mason, but he was much more openly friendly with the former. They clearly knew each other well. The younger guy met her eyes again before quickly moving his gaze away, as though he didn’t want to be caught staring.
Natalie wanted to giggle—No, strike that. Thirty-year-olds didn’t giggle. Natalie wanted to laugh because the look Mason gave her was clearly one of interest. While she was no stranger to receiving attention, even in her place of work, she wasn’t used to the attention-giver being so flustered. Casually flirting and asking her out was one thing. Tripping all over himself like she was a gorgeous woman in possession of large boobs, instead of a chest that aspired to be a B-cup, was definitely more unique.
He was Caucasian and not only was he tall but also broad, although he didn’t appear muscular under his clothes. His physique gave the impression of something softer, like he was on his way toward establishing a dad bod and gave great hugs. He had close-cropped hair that was a medium brown with some reddish undertones. His jawline was in the process of growing a beard but, at this stage, the follicles weren’t long enough to hide a cleft in his chin. The eyes weren’t quite brown and not quite green but a swirly, hazel combination of both. She had to admit, this was exactly the type of guy she tended to gravitate toward, and maybe she found herself sneaking glances at him as well.
Except there was already a strike against him.
He was obviously a local guy.
Natalie made it a rule never to get involved with local guys. The less chance she had of running into someone she might want to eventually avoid, the better.
Also, he was clearly too nice. It was a mistake for too nice guys to get involved with her because what they wanted and what she wanted was not only not in the same ballpark, it wasn’t even in the same sport. Her needs were very simple. As long as she didn’t have to commit to an actual relationship, she was good. Anything else wasn’t worth the hassle either for them or for her. Plus, the older she got the less Natalie enjoyed shredding hearts. She may have been a villain, but she didn’t have the stomach for any organs, let alone the beating ones.
Okay, that was two problems. He was a local. Too nice. Oh, and he had trouble making decisions under pressure. There was probably a lot more she could list but their encounter had lasted two minutes and she wasn’t psychic.
Hmm. That did make her think, though. Daniel had ordered for him, ordering the same drink as himself. Except there was no way Mason was a black coffee type of guy. His vibe was reading something entirely different. Also she was feeling a tad guilty about being rude earlier. She could at least do something for the guy. It wasn’t as if he was the one forcing Christmas music on her. The only person who earned her contempt so far was her cousin.
“Are you working on that order for Daniel yet?” Natalie asked Diego.
“Just getting to it now.”
“Make only one a black coffee. The other should be…a Nutella latte.”
He studied the ticket. “That’s not what this says.”
“I know because that’s not what they ordered.”
Diego stopped his activity, his brows pressing together. “Are you sure you want to do this? I don’t want to get in trouble for wrong orders while my dad is here.”
She waved him off. “It’s fine. I’ll take it over to the table and take responsibility for it. You’re not going to get in trouble.” And it wasn’t as if Mason hadn’t asked for her suggestion to begin with. Her answer to his question was merely delayed.
Shrugging, Diego did as she instructed. With the drinks in hand, she strode to the table with confidence. The group of men all acknowledged her, although it was Mason’s eyes that stayed on her the longest. “Okay, here’s a black coffee,” she said, placing the drink before Daniel. “And a Nutella latte.”
“We didn’t order that,” the older man said. “Mason should have got—”
“It’s okay. I’ll drink it,” he replied, taking the offered cup, and gulping a large sip as if he expected someone to come along and snatch it away. Yeah, this guy was definitely in the way too nice category.
Her Tío Enrique sent a stern look in her direction, but she clasped her hands together and smiled sweetly. “Natalie—”
“Wow, that’s really good. This might be my new favorite drink.” Mason stood, reaching into his pocket. “Do I owe you something extra?”
“It’s fine. Fine,” Enrique answered, waving away Mason’s wallet. “Don’t worry about it. For you, my friends, it’s on the house.”
Mason continued standing, staring at her, before appearing self-conscious and sinking into his chair again. “Okay, thanks.”
She glanced downward to see if her boobs had suddenly grown overnight. Nope, they were still small. Also her hair was a mess, and the only makeup she had hurriedly swiped on this morning was some tinted moisturizer. She didn’t know what he saw but she wondered if the guy was due for an eye exam. Small boobs aside, Natalie had always been okay with her body but even she wasn’t that confident.
“What about her? Could she do it?” Daniel asked and suddenly she regretted coming here instead of sending Diego. If there was one thing she didn’t like, it was being roped into things, especially when her uncle had a bad habit of volunteering people regardless of whether they were his own offspring or extended family members.
“My niece is the manager here and she’s great, but she’s a bit…” Enrique studied her as if she was going to finish this description and save him the trouble. Natalie crossed her arms, giving her uncle a flat look. This was going to be good. If there was one thing her family wasn’t afraid of, it was being honest to the point of rudeness.
Enrique waved a hand in her direction. “Yes, exactly. Natalie is like that,” he replied as if she’d made his point with her stance and current attitude. “Diego would be a better choice for this business plan,” her uncle continued. “He has more of the right attitude for…”
Excuse her? Enrique was going with Diego for whatever this was? Over her? Diego? The kid who thought it was hilarious to make fake fart sounds when the coffee shop was dead quiet—which was sometimes funny—but that wasn’t the point. For one thing, she’d been working at Pony Expresso for a long time, at least since she was Diego’s age. Plus, her cousin was willing to overlook an order and be talked into making something else entirely just because someone told him to. Did that sound like a leader? No, it did not. She was the manager for God’s sake and actually wanted to be the owner of her own coffee shop, if she ever had the money for it or could get Enrique to give her a chance. She wasn’t fooling around, doing this job for spending cash.
“I can do it,” she interrupted.
All eyes turned to her again.
“I don’t think you’ll want—” her uncle started.
“I can handle it,” she assured him. “What is it?”
Natalie got her first sign that maybe her ego wasn’t the best at making rash decisions when a smile, one that could only be described as devilish, slipped from beneath Tío Enrique’s mustache. He spread his hands as if to say, Well, you asked for it. “Daniel and I think it would be a good idea to have a small Pony Expresso coffee truck at Poinsettia Paradise, their Christmas tree farm in Apple Hill.”
“Oh.” Apple Hill was an area located in a town called Camino just outside the city of Placerville. While Mason could technically not be considered local-local it was definitely close enough. Too close.
Although, she had a bigger problem to worry about, because after hearing it laid out, everything her uncle said, especially about Diego, made a lot of sense. The kid would love to escape the coffee shop and goof off in a Christmas tree lot, a place where he wouldn’t have constant supervision and could make all the fart noises he wanted. In fact, fart noises were probably more appreciated in a place like Poinsettia Paradise. “Okay, well, now that you mention it—”
“Actually, you know what? Maybe you are exactly the right person for the job,” Enrique said, leaning smugly against the chair back. “It’ll be good for you.”
Being surrounded by Christmas trees and cheer and cold and all that stuff? Yeah, none of that sounded like the kind of change she was looking for. How could Natalie be the right type of person for this job when she wasn’t even a Christmas person? Time to pump the great attributes of her younger cousin, who happened to be a star employee and never complained about cleaning the bathroom, even though it took him a weirdly long time to do it. Oh, and he had a great sense of humor and did exactly what the manager told him to do. “Yeah, you know, Diego—”
“Great,” Daniel added, appearing pleased about Natalie volunteering herself. “Both Mason and I will look forward to seeing you around. Isn’t that right, Mase?” He planted a hand on Mason’s shoulder, giving him a light pat.
“Yeah, sounds good,” he replied. “When do you want to come by to pick up a tree?”
“Uh, what tree?” she was at a complete loss and her whole world was shifting out of control. Damn Enrique. She was calling her tía right after this to tell her all about him sneaking pastries for breakfast after promising he was going to eat healthier.
“They’re giving us a tree for the shop. Isn’t that great? We still have some ornaments in storage around here, right?” Enrique asked.
“I guess.” Cheap ornaments from the Dollar Store were stashed in a supply closet somewhere. She wasn’t looking forward to adding decorating a tree to her list. “I’m sure whatever tree you guys bring will be fine. Although, it seems like a bigger hassle than it’s worth.”
Mason frowned, tilting his head. “It’s no hassle at all. But it’s probably better if you pick it out yourself. Picking out the right Christmas tree can be very personal.”
Huh? Did one type leave fewer pine needles than another? This was her biggest requirement, considering she was being forced into this tree-hunting situation in the first place. Getting a Christmas tree wasn’t the same as getting a puppy. There was no way Natalie was getting attached to a silly tree, especially one that would only be hanging around for a few weeks.
Her negligence of houseplants was the reason she had earned a reputation for being a plant killer. The one plant she’d kept alive was a tiny potted cactus Carla had brought from her job at the florist and gifted as a joke. She made sure to inform Natalie the cactus type was called Old Lady. Ha, ha, Carla. Regardless, she named the plant Thorny, and, at three years, it had been her longest committed relationship. Maybe the cactus started off as a joke, but Thorny and her got along great. Neither enjoyed being fussed over, preferring negligence to smothering. Maybe instead of a Christmas tree, she could bring Thorny in and spear its spines with colorful pom-poms. That was the type of holiday festivity Natalie could get behind.
Except it was becoming clearer she wasn’t going to be able to weasel her way out of this, not when Enrique had already made the decision and had his mind set.
“Are you kidding me with this whole Christmas tree farm thing? You and I both know I’m not the most bubbly person,” Natalie said to her uncle as he was gathering his items from the manager’s office.
“It’ll be great for business. And you said you really wanted to do it,” Enrique replied, slipping his arms into his jacket sleeves.
“Oh, stop. You know I don’t. You just tricked me into it. Besides, I can’t do it, because I have my state-line vacation set for the week after Thanksgiving, so I’d be missing at least two big weekends.”
He slid her a flat look. “You’re really gambling right before Christmas?” Enrique and Tía Sonia were more religious than her own immediate family. They never bluntly told her gambling was a sin, but they had no qualms implying it, usually disguising their opinion as either a joke or an invitation to join them for Mass at St. Anthony’s.
Except Natalie only took two vacation weeks a year, one in April and one in December, when tourist season was less busy. Also, she wasn’t actually gambling. It was a little white lie that started as a joke and then stuck. She thought it was funny, so she never corrected her family’s assumptions regarding her Tahoe trips. She even owned a T-shirt reading Queen of the Machine with an image of a slot machine. There was no way something this hilarious could bite her in the ass, and it was better if the family (especially the really religious side) didn’t know the truth.
“Of course. Gambling might be the only way I’m ever going to get enough money to buy Pony Expresso from you,” she replied.
Enrique rolled his eyes. “You should come to Mass with me and Tía.”
“If I go with you to Mass, can I skip out on this whole Christmas tree lot scheme? Diego has a better personality to fit in with that whole scene anyway.”
Her uncle’s thick brows pushed together as he studied her. “Look, I love you like you were one of my kids, but sometimes I don’t know what you’re thinking. What exactly do you want, Natalie?”
“I want to go on my damn vacation and not have to work at some damn Christmas tree lot.”
He shot her a look, translating to cut the bullshit. This, and the fact he didn’t say something about her swearing, indicated his seriousness about the situation. “No, what do you want from all of this? Do you still like working here?”
She took a deep breath because though she joked plenty of times about being the true heart-and-soul owner of the coffee shop, she’d never had an honest and open conversation about it with him. “Yes, I do. I want to be like you. I don’t want to be a manager of a coffee shop, I want to be an owner. You know I could do it too. I’ve been running this place for almost ten years now. I know everything about it. I just don’t have the money to do it.”
His expression softened. “You want to be like me?” He studied her while tapping the keys in his hands, taking longer to think about what she had said. “You talked to my brother about this before?”
Natalie shook her head because her parents only cared about her having gainful employment and possibly settling down to start a family. She took care of the first one, but they’d been waiting a long time for the latter. While she didn’t mind kids, she was convinced it wasn’t worth chaining herself to someone in order to have one.
“I want you to do Poinsettia Paradise.”
This wasn’t the response she was hoping for, but she didn’t know what she had expected. Her family could be supportive in their own way, but they weren’t exactly Let me give you a coffee shop type of support system, nor did they necessarily have the financial means for it. Even so, it was annoying. “Tío—”
“No, I’m serious. I really do think it would be good for you.”
“But my vacation—”
“I think it’ll be worth it for you to skip your vacation this one time.”
Natalie held her breath. “Worth it?”
“This coffee truck at the lot, I don’t think this is going to be a one-time thing. This is just a test run. Understand?”
It finally clicked. She did understand because she was the one who suggested possibly having a mobile coffee shop, for festivals and fairs, a year ago. In fact, she went as far as putting together numbers to support her business proposal and gave him a whole presentation. At the time, she believed her uncle had blown off her idea. He wasn’t one to rush into decisions. It took her forever to talk him into the occasional specialty drink like Nutella lattes. He was the type of man who took a lot of convincing because if he didn’t like something, he assumed no one else would. “You’re going to invest in my coffee truck idea?”
“Maybe it’s time for me to invest in you . You do a good job. I don’t want to lose you to another shop someday.”
Her hope rose. “Really?” Was this it? Was her hard work about to pay off?
“Neither Diego nor Peter are interested. They want to do other things. And you’re my family. I think you would be a good partner.”
“Partner?” Her? A partner? At Pony Expresso? It was almost too much.
But? There was nothing further to add because Natalie would be a good partner to her uncle. She loved the business, and she was good at it. What else mattered?
“I’m afraid to invest in someone who’s a gambler. You know this is our livelihood. It’s what supports me and your tía.”
Natalie watched her dream slip away in real time. “Oh, but I’m not—” she started to say in her defense before realizing she couldn’t finish the sentence. If she blurted out she wasn’t a gambler, she’d have to follow it up with another lie. Or tell him the truth, which would make her look like a worse option for a business partner. It would definitely change how her family saw her. Her heart sank.
Enrique’s eyebrows rose. “You’re not what?”
“I-I’m not the type of person who would gamble recklessly with the business. You know me. I love this shop and you and Tía. I’m not like that.” Even in her mind, her defense sounded weak, but she was stuck and, even worse, it was a hole she had put herself in. Surprise! That hilarious white lie had just bit her in the damn ass.
He nodded his head slowly. “That’s what I think but, still, I want to see it. Instead of going gambling, take a hundred percent control of the truck at Poinsettia Paradise. This will be your project to run on your own and set up how you want. If it goes well, then we start the new year talking about your role and future at Pony Expresso. Does this sound okay to you?”
What could she say? He was giving her the opportunity and she had to snatch it. “Yes. Okay. I can do that.” Giving up her vacation wasn’t a huge sacrifice when so much was on the line. She could go through her dry spell a little longer for the greater good. Sure, she still wasn’t looking forward to being surrounded by festivities and Christmas and all that, but she could definitely manage.
“Great,” Enrique said. “It’ll be good for you.”
She could do this.
With the discussion over, she returned to the front of the shop, only to discover Mason was still there. He stood as soon as their eyes connected. Her heart did a small flutter but she did her best to tamp down this reaction because heart flutters were a waste of time.
He approached, his head ducking and his hands stuffed into the pockets of his coat. “Hi again. Sorry. We never figured out when you were going to come get the tree. We can also exchange numbers and set something up later if you’re too busy to do it now.”
Her suspicions rose. This was all her fault. She did one nice thing, like giving a guy a Nutella latte, and now he thought she was a friend or open to receiving unsolicited dick pics. “That’s okay. I’ll just stop by sometime after work or something. Thanks anyway.”
He blushed, which was kind of cute. She wished she hadn’t noticed that. It made her want to be nice instead of smart.
“Oh, i-it’s not…” Stumbling with his words he tried again. “I just mean we’re not officially open to the public yet. I want to make sure someone will be there to help you. Unless, of course, you’re a certified lumberjack. In that case, I apologize. I shouldn’t have presumed. But I’ll need to see your certification. It’s a tree farm liability thing.”
He said this with complete seriousness. She had to work hard to school her features, hiding her amusement, which would only encourage him. “Is getting lumberjack certified something I can do online?” she asked while also playing it straight.
“Probably not in time to get a tree this year.”
“Darn. I’m sure that’s something that really comes in handy too.”
“It might be easier if I just help you.” Mason pulled his phone from a pocket, waiting expectantly.
She became nervous, feeling trapped. Taking control, she retrieved her own phone. “How about I text you when I know my schedule better? What’s your number?”
Natalie was about to inform him that this was about getting a tree and nothing else, to set expectations exactly where they should be, when he continued after rattling off his number.
“I don’t want to make things weird but I just want to say that even if you ask, no, I am not willing to send you any dick pics. Don’t even ask because it’s not going to happen.”
This took her by complete surprise. She wasn’t about to beg for one… But her curiosity had become piqued, because who was this guy? “You get asked for a lot of dick pics?”
A smile slipped from his lips, warming his whole face, as his eyes crinkled in the corners. “No, but I figured it’s probably because I’ve stated up-front that I’m not going to do it. It’s just better if I cut the request off from the start. This way there are no expectations, and neither one of us is disappointed.”
This time a small laugh did pop out, the back of her hand pressing against her mouth to hold some of it inside, but it didn’t escape Mason’s notice, his smile lines becoming deeper. “Okay then. Natalie.” Her name reverberated in his husky voice as though he was trying the syllables on his tongue, testing them, getting used to the feel of them. “Well, I better head out. I’ll see you again soon.”
“’Kay.” Her own brain felt somewhat scrambled at this point. A lot had already happened today, and it seemed she’d used up all her words because she couldn’t think of anything better at this point. But she did her best to push him from her mind after he departed and return to her day. Natalie had to get her focus because she had a partnership to earn.
And the last thing she needed was a distraction in the shape of a local nice guy.
End of Excerpt