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Evie’s stomach churned as she stared at the supplies in the back of her SUV. Big bins of masa and sugar stared back at her. Okay, they didn’t exactly stare, but she now regretted turning down her cousin’s offer to help carry things in.
The load of groceries wasn’t why she was nervous.
“You’ve got this, Evie.” It had been her idea to reach out to the community and teach cooking classes in the small industrial kitchen they’d put in Mama Irene’s.
What she’d forgotten was that she wasn’t exactly comfortable speaking in front of people.
The new kitchen was separate from the factory floor where tortillas and tamales were made. The family business had been in the old building for more than one hundred years, and now it was Evie’s chance to help it grow.
There was so much pressure on her to show her family that she could stay true to their traditions and at the same time keep the business viable for the future.
She’d grown up working at Mama Irene’s, but this was the first time she was in charge of the business. Well, it was her second month as CEO. Not that anyone noticed. Her abuelita and father were always around the corner with advice.
She stared up to the heavens. “Gracias a Dios. And I’m grateful for it. I just sometimes wish they’d let me do what needs to be done.”
Bringing in tourists was key. Her idea for the classes was hands-on cooking lessons to show students how to make their favorite Mexican dishes. She’d been working on the website where people could sign up and the social media presence for the company. Her father and abuelita had been doing business the same way for years.
And while Evie didn’t want to forget tradition, being online would boost their business.
The new test kitchen where she’d be teaching had been a couple of storerooms. It was bright and gleaming and ready for the first class.
Evie just wasn’t sure she’d be the best teacher. “Trial by masa fire.”
She reached in to pick up the large bin with the masa. She stepped back, and her heel turned on the tall heels her abuelita scolded her about. She called them mata viboras, reptile killers. Said there was no place for them on the factory floor.
She fell forward and dropped the bin back into her car, a bag of masa busting open, falling on her like a cloud—into her eyes and on her cute blouse and dark jeans.
“¡Ay Dios mío!”
“Are you okay? Do you need some help?” A warm whiskey voice sent a shiver up her spine as someone pressed a cloth into her hand. “Use this. It’s clean. I promise.”
That voice was so velvety and deep. He sounded like one of the actors on her abuelita’s telenovellas.
Embarrassed, she wiped her face enough that she could blink her eyes open. Only to find a handsome man staring back at her.
What is he doing in this dark alley behind my store?
Forgetting the masa, she stared at him. “Are you a serial killer?”
He chuckled. “I gave that up years ago. I’m not a big fan of blood.”
They laughed. Handsome and funny. This guy was more dangerous than any serial killer ever could be.
“Good. And thank you so much for the handkerchief. I didn’t think guys still used these.”
He shrugged. “It’s something one of my foster dads always carried. He used to say, ‘You never know when you might meet someone who needs to wipe masa out of her eyes.’”
“He sounds like someone who was prepared for anything.”
“He was an Eagle Scout when he was younger and a marine. Lucky for me, he and his wife took me in when I was sixteen. And I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. I haven’t thought about those days in years.”
“I think it’s a great story,” she said. “You see so many horror stories about kids in foster care.”
“I was lucky to end up there. Not all the families I stayed with were as nice as they were, but I had it easy compared to a lot of kids.”
“Can I ask—Never mind.”
“Go ahead and ask.”
Cute and chivalrous.
A horn honked. Stop staring at him.
“Oh. No. My class. I have to get ready.”
“Let me help you.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got it.”
“My abuelita would tan my hide—her words not mine—if I just left you to carry in those heavy bags. She’s gone, but I still feel like she’s watching me.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said—and meant it. “My abuelita is inside, but it’s pretty much the same thing. She always knows what’s going on. I think she might be psychic.”
My grandmother always seemed to know what I was up to, and it scared me to death. She’d give me a look when I came in the back door, and I’d tell her everything.”
She moved to the side of the car to glance in the mirror. She still had a bit of masa on her eyelashes. After using his handkerchief to wipe her eyes, she brushed what she could off her new blouse.
She turned to him.
“I’m Evie Hernandez.” She held out her hand.
“Alejandro Ortiz, but call me Alex. It’s nice to meet you, Evie.”
Evie didn’t date—or at least hadn’t for a long time. She was focused on her career, and men were messy. But this guy—well, maybe she was missing out.
“And what brings you to my dark alley, Alex?”
“I’ve been wandering around the neighborhood and thought this might be a shortcut back to my hotel.”
“Ah. Well, thank you for the handkerchief. Can I get it back to you tomorrow? If you let me know where you’re staying, I can wash it and then drop it by.”
He shrugged. “I have others. But let me help you get these inside.”
Evie waved a hand. “Oh, I don’t want to trouble you. You’ve been kind enough already.”
“De nada. No problemo.”
He picked up the two heaviest bins as if they weighed no more than a feather, his arms flexing under his sweater.
She had to force herself to turn away and grab the remaining shopping bags. Evie, you don’t have time for men. You have to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.
A few months ago, she’d been in Manhattan following her dreams. She’d just graduated with her MBA and, thanks to her grades, had landed at a top software company.
Six months into her dream job, the call came about her dad. He’d had a mild heart attack, and her mother wasn’t sure what she could do to get him to slow down. He wouldn’t trust just anyone to take over the business.
And while her abuelita had more energy than all of them put together, her memory slips were worrisome.
Evie quit her job without complaint and came home to help. Maybe this wasn’t exactly her dream, but she had great ideas on how to bring the business into the present. Once things settled down, she’d think about if this was permanent.
After closing the trunk she led him through the back door. To the left was the factory where the staff was still making tortillas to put into the special ovens her great-grandfather had built years ago.
The tortilla dough was flattened, shaped, and then put at the top of the rotating oven. By the time it reached the bottom to be shot out onto a tray, it would be the perfect color and texture.
“This place smells amazing.”
She laughed. “It’s been in my family for over a hundred years. My great-grandparents opened the business and named it after my abuelita Irene. So it’s Mama Irene’s.”
Evie was nervous, and she didn’t know why.
Pushing open the double doors into the new test kitchen, she held one side open so he could pass through.
“Just set those on the counter at the front.” To maximize space, they’d created a long kitchen island covered in white quartz, which was durable and easy to clean. Stools had been set up so that at least ten people could sit there comfortably.
There were three more stations spaced out that were set up the same way and could accommodate up to four students. The walls were covered with reclaimed wood and iron shelves from floor to ceiling, except for the one that would be behind her when she taught the class. That one was filled with black-and-white family photos taken at the factory. She loved the idea of her family being with whomever was teaching a class in here.
It was Evie’s dream kitchen, and she was so excited to share it with the students.
Alex put the bins down and then smiled as he looked around. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s the perfect place for cooking classes.”
Evie smiled. “That’s the plan. I’m trying to grow Mama Irene’s, and to do that, I need more customers. What better way than to feed them and teach them how to feed themselves?”
“Smart and good business,” Alex said. “Do you have a website where they can buy your products? In case they don’t want to make their own?”
Her face heated. He really did understand what she was trying to do. “Yes, we do. It went live a few days ago. So, uh, thank you so much for helping me. Are you sure I can’t bring you the handkerchief back?”
“Evelyn!” Her abuelita came through the door. “Did I see you come in with a handsome young man?”
She jumped a little. “Abuelita, you scared me to death.”
Her grandmother stopped and gave Alex the once-over.
He cleared his throat. “I’m Alejandro. I was just helping your granddaughter.” He smiled, and Evie was fairly certain her abuelita was giving him ojitos.
I can’t believe she’s batting her eyelashes at him.
“Of course you are. Why don’t you help her set up, and I’ll get you some food. You look hungry.”
“I don’t want you to go to any trouble,” he said. “Though I feel like I could eat the air here. It smells so good.”
A big smile crossed her abuelita’s face. “I’ll fix you some food, and you help Evie set up. We have quite the crowd at the front of the store waiting to get in. Seems like this little side venture may pay off after all, mija.”
A crowd? Only five students had signed up on the website, but walk-ins were allowed. Her stomach twisted again.
No. This is a good thing. Right?
Her abuelita ran out of the room like a pack of chupacabras was chasing her.
Evie shook her head. “You really don’t have to stay. I can set up. You’ve been so kind already.”
“Nah, I’d like to see the class, if that’s okay? And the idea of trying the food you make seems like a great idea.” His stomach rumbled.
They both laughed.
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
“Show me how you want things set up, and I’ll do that. That way you can change if you need to.”
She frowned and then glanced down at her clothes, which were still lightly dusted with masa.
“Okay.” She quickly explained how to divide the ingredients into the small dishes and set them at each place.
“How many setups do you need?”
“I don’t know. It sounds like we may have several walk-ins. Let’s put ten here on the big island, and I’ll run and check to see how many people we have. And thank you! I don’t know where you came from, Alejandro, but I’m very grateful.”
With that, she left him and ran to her office where she had a private bathroom. She took off her shirt and shook it in the sink and then did the same with her jeans. After brushing the rest out of her hair, she used a washrag to get it out of her eyes, ears, and nose. She glanced at herself in the mirror.
After reapplying her favorite Selena-Red lipstick, she turned in front of the full-length mirror, checking to make sure she was clean.
Evie was practical and didn’t believe in fairy tales, but Alex was a knight in shining armor. He’d come out of nowhere and was so kind. Yes, he was handsome, but it was how a person acted and their brains that made them sexy.
Alex was the whole package.
And he’s just here for a short while.
Standing taller, she forced a smile on her face.
There were other priorities tonight.
You can do this, Evie. These people are here to learn.
And she’d made a million tamales and buñuelos. Okay. Maybe not a million, but she could do it in her sleep.
After glancing out to the shop and seeing about twenty people milling around, she ran back to help set up more places.
But they’d already been done. Alex sat at the end of the large island with her grandmother. Her abuelita had her serious face on, and he nodded while he ate. She had no idea what they were talking about.
Pobre tipo. The poor guy was trapped.
Evie loved her abuelita, but she had no filters. In some ways, she admired that. Her grandmother always spoke her mind. But she’d also been talking a great deal about how Evie needed more balance in her life.
With her family around, she’d never be lonely.
“Oh, you’re back,” her abuelita said. Then she glanced at Alejandro and gave him the eye. The one that meant she’d been serious about whatever she’d been talking about.
“Please excuse Abuelita; she has no filters. Most days—maybe not today—it’s what I love most about her.”
“I’m just saying, you are both very business driven. And you have a lot in common,” her abuelita chimed in. “Alex is here for a few weeks, and I think you should show him our beautiful town. And maybe teach him a bit about how we do things here.” She waved a hand toward the factory.
Her abuelita faced Alex. “You are here for the Christmas season, which is the most magical time. You need a guide for all the festivities.”
He coughed and covered his mouth. She had a feeling he was laughing but didn’t want to be disrespectful.
Evie sighed. “I’m sure he has better things to do since he’s here on business.”
“Nonsense!” her abuelita said. “You have to live life.”
Embarrassed, she was about to protest when her phone dinged in her pocket.
It was a text from her cousin Marta, who was supposed to make the pitchers of margaritas and Horchata.
Sorry, cuz. Can’t make it.
That was it. No I’m sorry. Or I’ve sent someone else to help you.
“What am I going to do?”
“What’s wrong?” Alex asked.
She explained, and he and her abuelita glanced at one another and smiled.
“Alex just told me the only thing he’s good at in the kitchen is mixing a margarita.”
This had to stop. “No!” She hadn’t meant to say that so loud. “I mean, you’ve already done so much. I can’t ask you to do that.”
Alex stood. “I wanted to hang around for the class. I’m curious. Maybe it’s time I learned how to cook something that involves more than popping a package in the microwave or grabbing a takeout menu. I do get tired of eating out all the time.”
Evie smiled. He really was an adorably nice guy.
“Are you sure? I feel like we’ve taken advantage of you tonight.”
“Absolutely. Beats sitting in my hotel room eating room service and working on my laptop.”
Her abuelita hopped up off her stool. For a woman in her eighties, she had the energy of twelve twenty-year-olds. She handed him an apron. “Let’s get you to work, mijo. Evie, you go and lead your students in. We’ll get everything ready.”
Exactly who is in charge here?
But she didn’t say the words out loud. Evie might’ve had the CEO title now, but her grandmother and father had a tough time giving up the reins.
“Thank you,” she said quickly, needing an escape. This was so mortifying, her grandmother trying to fix her up with a stranger she met in an alley.
When Evie put it that way, it did feel weird.
With the way her grandmother was acting, Alex would probably escape the first chance he got, and she’d never see him again.
Evie didn’t want to think about why that seemed more disappointing than it should.
You just met him. But it wasn’t every day she ran into a guy like him. A man who was all three Hs: Handsome. Helpful. And Hungry.
¡Ay Dios mío!
End of Excerpt